Everett moves to block courthouse work

EVERETT — The Everett City Council passed an emergency ordinance Wednesday that blocks construction of Snohomish County’s future downtown courthouse over parking concerns and miscommunication.

The city’s new rules require the county to include more than 300 parking spaces. That’s nearly 10 times as many as included in current designs for the eight-story structure.

The city’s interim regulation is set to remain in effect for a year, while staff study Everett’s downtown parking needs.

“This will give us an opportunity to look at all of these questions anew to see what is really best for downtown,” Councilman Paul Roberts said.

The action passed unanimously, with all seven council members present.

At the county, worries already are running high about keeping courthouse construction within its $162 million budget. There’s no wiggle room for the number of spaces the city is proposing; county staff earlier estimated that supplying 300 spaces would cost an extra $20 million.

The county hoped to start construction in mid-2015. That timetable now appears to be in doubt.

Council Chairman Dave Somers said he and some of his colleagues were surprised to learn recently that Everett was concerned about parking for the new courthouse. Council members aired their dismay during an public meeting Monday.

“I think there has been an incredible lack of communication,” Somers said. “I think we need to engage the city on how to move forward.”

County Councilman Terry Ryan said it was “disconcerting to hear all of this at the end of the year.”

“I would be really surprised that Everett would do this out of the blue,” Ryan said.

Discussions about the courthouse were taking place between County Executive John Lovick’s administration and Mayor Ray Stephanson’s office.

Earlier this week, Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said he’d been in close contact with Stephanson and saw no reason that the project wouldn’t move ahead.

“If I were sitting in the mayor’s seat, I would have some of the same concerns,” he said.

All told, the future courthouse would displace 130 existing downtown parking spaces. People who work in the existing courthouse already use the county’s underground parking garage.

“We’ve always said this is going to be a replacement building,” Ericks said. “We’re going to build one, tear down the other one. This will all offset.”

Designs for the new building show about three-dozen secured spaces intended for judges and other staff. Much of the new courthouse site is now used as a parking lot. With that lot gone, about 100 spaces would be lost.

Earlier this week, the deputy executive said he was under the impression the city would allow the county to perform a parking study instead of mandating the extra spaces. City council members removed the study option before Wednesday’s vote.

Stephanson said he had been led to believe that the future courthouse would include substantially more parking.

“In the spring, both the executive’s office and the County Council represented to me that they were going to provide possibly 300 parking spaces in association with the courthouse,” Stephanson said after Wednesday’s meeting.

It was only in early November when Ericks told him otherwise, he said, adding that the deputy executive said county council members wouldn’t support the parking the city was expecting.

That contradicts what county council members said earlier this week. They insisted they were caught unaware by the city’s demands.

“I take people at their word when they express something to me,” the mayor said.

The new parking requirement refers generally to “large government administrative offices” downtown. In practice, it appears to apply only to the proposed courthouse.

Previous zoning regulations, which Everett adopted for its central business district in 2006, eliminated requirements for off-street parking for non-residential buildings.

The new rules call for one off-street parking space per 800 square feet. The proposed courthouse includes 250,000 square feet, which equals roughly 312 spaces under the city formula.

City leaders are prepared to discuss parking regulations with the county and could change the interim regulation, if appropriate, Stephanson said.

“We’ve just reached a critical point in our downtown where government buildings shouldn’t have a negative impact on private businesses,” he said.

The county did not send anyone to Wednesday’s city meeting to comment. Likewise, nobody from the city raised parking issues during recent courthouse updates scheduled regularly during County Council meetings.

While Lovick’s administration is taking heat for the communication problems surrounding the courthouse, his team inherited an already troubled project.

After the former executive, Aaron Reardon, resigned amid controversy, Lovick’s staff revisited courthouse plans at the council’s request. Ericks and others raised questions about the plans that had emerged under Reardon’s watch. Council members opted to radically alter the plans.

Instead of putting the new courthouse next door to the existing 1967 building they hope to replace, they chose to locate it across the street and about a block east. The site they chose is a county-owned parking lot on Wall Street, between Rockefeller and Oakes avenues. The lot supplies parking demand for events at Xfinity Arena, across the street.

The future courthouse site also required buying out six smaller properties on the same block, which included some parking as well as law offices and other businesses.

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

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