How a parking dispute put county courthouse project in doubt

EVERETT — For the better part of a year, Mayor Ray Stephanson thought he had a deal.

Snohomish County’s courthouse construction project looked to be the ticket for reviving a down-at-the-heels block along Everett’s Hewitt Avenue.

If his administration worked with the county, they could add a fresh row of retail shops downtown. On top of that — literally — they could plunk a parking garage with a few hundred spaces. Added downtown parking promised to relieve a problem that’s tormented city leaders for decades.

“I believed right up until November that we had a partnership in understanding the need,” Stephanson said.

The proposal promised benefits all around: a new courthouse on one end of the block, parking and shops on the other.

Instead, there’s confusion and uncertainty.

Somewhere along the way, the parking part of the deal evaporated.

Stephanson’s administration and county council members now say County Executive John Lovick’s staff kept them out of the loop for months.

Now, the entire $162 million courthouse project remains in doubt. The reason? Parking.

Some county leaders have openly discussed pulling the plug on courthouse construction, scheduled to start later this year. Other options include building the new courthouse somewhere else, even outside of Everett.

The county has spent $7 million so far — without turning a stone. Half of that money went to buy out businesses in the courthouse’s anticipated footprint, on Wall Street between Oakes and Rockefeller avenues. They now sit vacant.

Architectural designs, largely complete, may be of no use if the location changes.

The County Council is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on what to do about the courthouse at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

The County Council picked the Wall Street location for the new courthouse in late 2013. The spot sits across the street and a block east of the 1967 building they want to replace. The $150 million base price for that option was estimated to cost about 27 percent more than constructing a similarly sized building on the plaza next to the existing courthouse. Another $12 million was added for expenses such as efficiency upgrades and demolishing the old building.

The proposed footprint would take over the county’s 130-space parking lot between Oakes and Rockefeller avenues. To make room for the new courthouse, the county also condemned six adjacent parcels used by law offices and other businesses.

As courthouse planning progressed, Stephanson’s administration already had been looking at ways to redevelop the same block, situated next to Xfinity Arena, a major driver of the downtown economy.

Conversations started within city government after a fatal November 2012 fire that led the demolition of the McCrossen Building on the corner of Hewitt and Oakes avenues. A year later, another fatal fire on the block left the five-story Hodges Building with safety issues. The landlord — the same man who owned the McCrossen — fixed some of the problems, but the three-dozen apartments there have since been vacated.

“We saw that as a prime opportunity for redevelopment,” said Lanie McMullin, an executive director for the city.

In January 2014, with the courthouse location seemingly settled, Lovick’s administration started talking with Stephanson’s office. How might the county and city work together to meet their goals on the block?

“The focus was on economic development,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “Parking was a side discussion.”

If the county condemned three buildings and a vacant lot on Hewitt, the city and county could work with the whole block.

By size, it would be the largest public building project in downtown Everett since the construction in 2003 of what is now known as Xfinity Arena.

As the thinking went, the county could build the shops on Hewitt Avenue and make some money back by selling them as surplus after the construction. A rooftop parking lot above those buildings would have provided hundreds of stalls to absorb demand.

A commercial property developer stood ready to bid on the retail space, McMullin said.

The county arranged an executive session to talk over legal and real estate questions at the County Council on April 16. The closed-door discussion included not only county officials, but Stephanson and McMullin.

That was the last time County Council Chairman Dave Somers remembers hearing of the joint redevelopment idea.

“We were asked once about this in the executive session this spring,” Somers said. “We were never brought back any options. We never said ‘no’ to anything.”

To hear Ericks tell it, the concept of using the county project to further the city’s redevelopment plan ceased to be viable in July.

That’s when the County Council switched the main courthouse architect. The decision arose out of fears that the original architect wasn’t heeding warnings to keep the project within budget. Council members made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate cost overruns.

In addition to county money, making the city’s plan work required condemning the four properties fronting Hewitt Avenue, including the Hodges Building and the former McCrossen lot, Ericks said. As courthouse designs evolved, the footprint shrank. The county lost its legal justification for condemning the parcels along Hewitt.

“We no longer had eminent domain — public use and necessity — for a courthouse building” on those properties, he said.

Given the legal and financial constraints, the only way to pull off the project with the city would be some kind of public-private partnership, Ericks said, with the private partner footing the bill.

In an interview last week, Ericks said he believes the information was relayed to Stephanson’s office before November, but he couldn’t say exactly when.

It was during a Nov. 4 meeting that Stephanson said he realized the joint redevelopment option was gone. As he recalls it, Ericks surprised him by saying the County Council wouldn’t support teaming up with Everett on redevelopment.

“My response to Mark was, ‘Whoa, this is a real curveball,’” Stephanson said.

The mayor wasn’t the only one surprised — so were county decision-makers. Somers said he had no idea that Everett was under the impression that some sort of joint project involving parking was receiving close consideration. Moreover, the council never gave orders to reject any potential partnership.

“I don’t know where along the line somebody decided that the proposal on Hewitt wasn’t going to happen, because it was never brought back to the County Council,” he said. “Why was that decision never made? That decision got made somewhere and it never got communicated to the County Council or the city. If it was brought up six months ago, we could have dealt with it then if it was such a big issue.”

Stephanson decided last week that it was time to reveal the discussions between city and county leaders, and his take on why they failed.

His perspective explains why city leaders took emergency action on Christmas Eve to block courthouse construction. Until then, city zoning rules for the area included no specific parking requirement.

Under the emergency rules the council imposed, the city won’t let the county build the new courthouse unless it can provide more than 300 parking spaces. Current designs include only 30.

“We collectively have come to the conclusion that building government buildings should not have a negative impact on businesses in our downtown,” Stephanson said.

The mayor said it’s now up to the county — not city staff — to find a solution.

Downtown parking long has been a subject of give-and-take between the city and county. It was a major theme in a 2002 agreement that allowed the county to develop a new administration building and jail. The city required the county to provide 1,385 parking spaces — 1,200 of them in the underground garage the county was then preparing to build. The rest would be nearby, off the street.

At the time, Paul Roberts was serving as Everett’s planning director. He left that job in 2004 and is now a city councilman.

“This was part of a bigger discussion as well, with the city agreeing to expanding the jail, and also for maintaining the county seat and trying to address the growth,” he said. He said he hasn’t been party to the recent discussions between the city and county.

The city now says the county has fallen short of complying with the 2002 agreement by about 50 parking spaces. Losing the 130 spaces on the proposed courthouse site would put them further out of compliance, Stephanson said.

Ericks and some others in county government maintain the parking concern is misguided. The new courthouse, they contend, will merely replace the one they’re tearing down. No staff increases are expected.

“My personal opinion is that we should help in any way we can,” Ericks said. “But should we raise taxes on the entire county to pay for a parking structure that the county doesn’t need?”

Whether moved, downsized or delayed, nobody in government appears to be giving up the new courthouse — yet.

Even the project’s biggest critics concede something needs to be done, eventually. The existing courthouse has well-documented structural and safety flaws. Maintenance has become an increasing drain.

“We stand ready to work with them,” Stephanson said. “We want to see this project be successful, but not to the detriment of our business community.”

Herald writer Chris Winters contributed to this report.

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

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