A handful of people come and go at the main entrance to the Snohomish County Courthouse late Monday afternoon. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Despite issues, judges warming up to courthouse renovation plan

EVERETT — Some skeptical judges signaled for the first time Monday that they’re open to supporting the idea of renovating the Snohomish County courthouse, though they’re quick to point out shortcomings in the plan.

The County Council could decide as early as next week whether to commit to the nearly $63 million construction project.

“We don’t think this is the ideal solution,” said Presiding Superior Court Judge Linda Krese, who added that some of her colleagues remain opposed.

Designs presented by the county’s architect on Monday show a new five-story tower joined to the north side of the courthouse facing Wall Street. That would help provide three separate elevator systems for different groups of people: patrons, staff and jail inmates who appear in court. In the current setup, those groups are often forced into uncomfortably close quarters.

Last month, all three of the building’s elevators stopped working on the same day.

The renovation plan also aims to make the courthouse more earthquake-ready and provides bathrooms on every floor that meet federal standards for people with disabilities, compared to just one now. Security would improve on several fronts.

Given the county’s finances, the latest plans are better than doing nothing, Krese said. The courts stand to gain one new courtroom and vast improvements to two others. A new jury room would have space for 200 people.

The plans don’t provide as secure a layout as judges would like and leave some nagging maintenance needs untouched. Even so the presiding judge said she was impressed at what Atlanta-based architect Heery International was able to accomplish within the limited budget. She and her colleagues also are demanding a long-term plan for constructing a future courthouse, perhaps about two decades down the road.

If approved, construction could start late this year and the new tower could open in 2020, architect Doug Kleppin said.

Serious debates about replacing the 1967 courthouse have dragged on for a decade.

At a critical point in 2012, the County Council voted to take out $75 million in bonds to pay for renovation. A year later, the council increased the budget to $162 million pay to build a new eight-story building across the street and a block to the east.

The county was preparing to break ground on that project in 2015 when the County Council abruptly put it on hold over financial concerns and parking requirements from Everett. About $3.6 million in property condemned to make space for the future courthouse footprint now sits mostly idle.

County Executive Dave Somers, a former councilman who was elected to his current position in 2015, last year came out in favor of the renovation project to address urgent needs at a reduced cost. Money from the original bond sale would pay for it.

The courthouse addition would add about 29,000 square feet, expanding the existing building about 25 percent.

Somers also asked the County Council to support a combined $9.2 million in upgrades left off the main courthouse renovation plan. They include overhauling heating and air systems, courtroom audio-visual equipment and security features. That money would come from taxes on property transactions.

The veterans’ memorial on the plaza outside the courthouse would move to a different spot if the construction project moves ahead.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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