The nearly century-old King County Courthouse is facing a costly maintenance backlog that’s raising red flags for some county leaders.
Deep within the King County Courthouse, maintenance workers for years have been slapping Band-Aid fixes on faulty fans and boilers and leaky pipes.
“We’re doing what we can, but there’s only so much,” maintenance operating engineer Keith Skinner said, noting that some repair parts aren’t even available because equipment is so outdated.
Next May the courthouse turns 100 years old, and county leaders are discussing a full-body repair project that could cost more than $150 million and take several years.
King County Courthouse
• About 4,500 people are in the nearly 100-year-old, 568,000-square-foot building on an average weekday.
• It houses 44 courtrooms and related functions, and also serves as a headquarters for the Metropolitan King County Council and the Sheriff’s Office.
• The building has 12 floors and a basement, with a mezzanine on the 10th floor.
Meeting on Tuesday
Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer is holding a committee meeting to discuss the facility’s future at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the County Council chambers.
Sources: King County Courthouse security staff, Executive Services Department
County leaders are in early talks over the building’s flaws and the scope of a potential overhaul, and they’re seeking more information before setting aside large amounts of money. They’re also discussing alternatives, such as moving out tenants to maximize space or redeveloping entirely.
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“We better slow down before we make this kind of investment in a 100-year-old building,” King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars is a big red light.”
The conversation on the behind-the-scenes maintenance work has started another on the design of the building and how in some ways it no longer meets the needs of courthouse operations.
For example, county officials and staff members have expressed a need for holding rooms near courtrooms, or private corridors for transporting inmates to and from the jail, instead of using the same hallways as judges, jurors and the public during recesses.
“When they built the courthouse, they weren’t really thinking about that,” King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson said. Her office last week discussed with a council committee findings from a months-long examination of the proposed project.
Celebrated for its historical significance, the 568,000-square-foot courthouse at 516 Third Ave. in Pioneer Square not only houses courtrooms and related functions, but also serves as a headquarters for the Metropolitan King County Council and the Sheriff’s Office.
Amid the thousands of frequenters daily, pipes, fans and boilers, for instance, are deteriorating within the courthouse’s underbelly. Facility workers say there is a desperate need for updates, both for operating efficiency and to comply with current building codes.
Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said he’s going to encourage his colleagues to carefully consider all options — including sale of the site and use of the revenue to build new — before they move forward with an overhaul. County leaders have so far set aside $1.2 million for the planning stage of the project.
“I think it’s time to be creative and let somebody else buy that building and let the private company get that work done,” said von Reichbauer, who scheduled a committee meeting on the issue for Tuesday.
Dembowski said selling is a “very extreme option,” but agrees that county leaders need to explore all options, including finding new ways to maximize courthouse space. Some services, for example, could move to the King County Administration Building across the street, he said.
Depending on the scale of work, the total cost of the major maintenance repairs could range between $120 million and $168 million, according to the director of the Facilities Management Division, Anthony Wright. Facility workers are assessing areas in need of major updates to create a comprehensive report for county leaders to consider next April.
One component of the project, for example, could be repairing parts of the building’s electrical system.
“You don’t want to be around when it fails,” said maintenance electrician Richard Bartelds.
After discussing the auditor’s findings in a recent Government Accountability and Oversight Committee meeting, von Reichbauer said the estimated cost of the project is “jaw-dropping” and that he thinks the building in its current form has served its purpose.
“We’re turning the courthouse into a money pit,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
And the total estimated cost could grow. The auditor’s office recommended that during heavy construction on maintenance systems, changes to cure the aging building’s operational flaws also could be done.
“If you’re taking out a wall to deal with the plumbing, you may as well deal with a structural problem, too,” Waltmunson said. “We’re asking people to take a step back and look at the big picture.”
The auditor’s office recommended the maintenance project widen its scope to look at ways to improve security, access for people with disabilities, and the layout of courtrooms, for example.
“These courtrooms were built for a different time and era,” Dembowski said, adding that the rooms’ designs can make it challenging to install modern technology that could help casework.
The courthouse is considered a historic landmark and can undergo only certain structural changes in some areas, to preserve the building’s original design.
When the state of disrepair of the old Youth Services Center gained attention in 2012, spurring a recent county-led capital project, King County voters approved a $210 million tax levy to build new facilities. The alternative would have been to invest in repairs.
Leaders for that project estimated the maintenance backlog totaled about $53 million — about $100 million less than estimates for courthouse maintenance repairs.
Since a major remodeling project in 1967, which was around the same time that facility workers installed many of the building’s current heating, electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems, the courthouse has undergone smaller-scale repair work.
The last big project was more than a decade ago when the building was seismically retrofitted for about $105 million.
County leaders plan to continue discussing the auditor’s findings and the requested repairs in coming weeks.
“There’s a little sticker shock with the report from the county auditor’s office — not only the price tag for this project work, but her underlying comments about even after spending that much money there (is) so much more to be done,” von Reichbauer said. “This proposal is nothing more than a Band-Aid.”