Wednesday, October 17, 2018

New Thurston County Courthouse: 3 Possible Sites Chosen

Above: The choice of locations for a new courthouse has been narrowed to three sites in Olympia. The current Thurston County Courthouse, built in 1978, is nearing the end of its useful life and presents the county with a host of security and maintenance issues.

Thurston County is looking at an estimated $200 million project funded by a property tax 

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

The choice of locations for a new Thurston County Courthouse has been narrowed down from 12 to three. 

After a three month study, the three sites chosen are:

- The former Olympia city hall on Plum Street, now the Lee Creighton Justice Center, which would be demolished;

- Vacant land owned by developer Jim Morris on Olympia’s westside on Harrison Avenue NW;

- A renovation and expansion of the existing courthouse at 2000 Lakeridge Drive.

In early November, the county will hold a series of community open houses and launch a public online survey. The county commissioners will make a final location choice in December.

The courthouse is required by state law to be located in Olympia.

Ron Thomas, Thomas Architecture Studios, was hired by Thurston County to conduct a feasibility study and public process for the site selection.

A 20 member committee advising the county is comprised of local attorneys, Intercity Transit, the Thurston Chamber of Commerce, the Olympia Lacey Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau, business representatives, and others.

The group determined various issues to consider when choosing a location such as community values, community development and impact to surrounding areas, functionality of the courthouse, transportation and access, and cost sharing opportunities.

Thomas and team members provided several one and a half hour community presentations for the public at the Olympia Center on Tuesday.  

At each session, Thomas reviewed the public process and outreach schedule, site pros and cons and related community impacts, and answered community questions.

Little Hollywood attended two of the daytime community presentation sessions, which were held in a partitioned room that was not wheelchair accessible. The evening meeting was held in a room that was accessible.

Above: On Tuesday, several chalk outlines of bodies led to Superior Court and the Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Yvonne McDonald, 56, was an African American woman found with significant injuries to her body but alive on August 7 in west Olympia. She died later that night. There has been little reported progress in an investigation into her death.

Building the Case for a New Courthouse

Built in 1978, the current courthouse complex is a confusing maze of three buildings with little signage. 

The buildings face significant building design issues with security concerns and failing electrical, plumbing, and heating and ventilation systems. There is a lack of conference rooms for attorneys and advocates meeting with their clients and at certain times, inadequate parking.

The courthouse includes Superior Court, District Court, Drug Court, and the County Clerk.

In what Thomas called the “civic center,” portion of the courthouse, other courthouse services include the Prosecuting Attorney offices, Sheriff’s Department, Public Defense, Assessor, Auditor, Treasurer, Environmental Health, Commissioners, Development Review, Community Planning and Economic Development Department, Human Resources, and Pre-Trial Services.

The Olympia Justice Center is located at the Lee Creighton Justice Center on Plum Street, formerly Olympia City Hall. It contains the City Municipal Court, Probation, City Jail, City Prosecutor, and Court and Parking Judication.

To accommodate all these services in a consolidated location, the new courthouse facility needs an estimated 389,000 square feet, Thomas said, and would need room to expand to accommodate future growth.

The current courthouse employs about 400, but by 2050, that number is expected to reach 500.

Anticipated parking needs will require 1,200 parking spaces in a structured parking garage with height zoning changes. 

For each site, Thomas characterized the property, its pros and cons, and ranked each with a transit access and walking score. The maximum score for transit and pedestrian access was 100.

Above: Current Courthouse Location at 2000 Lakeridge Drive sits on 26 acres, characterized by steep slopes, making only 14 – 15 acres available for construction. Its transit score was 40. Its walking score, 21, was the lowest of the three sites due to its geographic isolation. It is currently served by two Intercity Transit routes, Route 12 and Route 42. The only nearby restaurant is at the Hotel RL. Selection of this site would renovate and expand the courthouse complex in phases while maintaining services.

Above: The former Olympia City Hall site at 900 Plum Street, now the Lee Creighton Justice Center sits on 10 ½ acres with two wetlands. Its transit score ranked 56, the highest of all three sites, due to its proximity to I-5 and multiple Intercity Transit routes and their frequency. It received a walking score of 85, also the highest of the three sites, due to its location near restaurants and other services.

City of Olympia municipal court services and the jail are located here and would be demolished. Built in 1966, the building was designed by noted local architect Robert Wohleb and is featured on tours highlighting mid-century modern architecture.

This location is adjacent to the Yashiro Japanese Garden and a proposed site for a city-owned 24/7 emergency housing space for 40 unsheltered individuals using a mix of tiny homes and tents.

In one presentation, Thomas said the wetlands on the property could be filled in, but their function would have to be made up some other way.

Above: Vacant land near a strip development at 4419 Harrison: 27 acres bound by Harrison Avenue NW and Kaiser and 7th Avenue near the Highway 101 interchange, the land is owned by developer Jim Morris. This location ranked a transit score of 34 and a walking score of 50 because there are stores and services nearby. 

Jay’s Farm Stand and a new strip development owned by Morris are near this option. Tenants of that development include Blue Heron Bakery and Don Juan Mexican Restaurant. Intercity Transit does not currently serve the area.

Instead of structured parking at this site, there is room to create eight acres of surface parking, thus lowering the overall project cost, Thomas said. He added that he didn’t think that was the right thing to do.

An extensive onsite stormwater facility would need to be built if this location was chosen. Roads would also be built north and south and east and west through the property to address connectivity issues.

Community Impact

Wherever the new courthouse is located, it will have a dramatic impact on the area.
Whether it is located in a commercial area or residential area, the courthouse will spill out into the area for “blocks and blocks,” catering to employees and clients using courthouse services, Thomas said.

John Vanek, an attorney with the Housing Justice Project program at Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services, a nonprofit arm of the Thurston County Bar Association, provided his thoughts.

Vanek provides free civil legal advice and representation to low-income people facing eviction in Thurston and Mason Counties.

“There is inadequate parking and no meeting space to meet with clients in a confidential location. Many are not familiar with court and they are already traumatized. There is a video screen informing clients of cases but it uses archaic language such as ‘unlawful detainer’ which means eviction. It is not a welcoming is artless,” he said.

Later, he expressed his concerns about locating the new facility on Plum Street, saying the area is built on fill and past core sample results looked like a “gray milkshake.” He also expressed concern that the facility would have a significant impact on the nearby Eastside neighborhood.

One woman, an attorney, said the current courthouse feels dangerous.

“It’s so crowded, stressful and confusing. It needs to be a space that feels safe and secure,” she said. 

She was eager for the project to start and offered suggestions for making the current location more desirable, such as a covered pedestrian bridge linking parking to the facility.

Other suggestions for the new facility besides improved parking, security and added space requirements included an open plaza, an atrium, a central kiosk staffed with a real person to help direct court users, vending machines, and an area for children.

Bob Schwartz of HOK Architects conducted the feasibility study for a new courthouse in 2015.

In an interview after a presentation, Schwartz said he has designed hundreds of courthouses throughout the country in his 35 year career. He recently designed courthouses in Marion County, Indianapolis and Joliet, Illinois, outside Chicago.

“There is a pent up demand for courthouse facilities. Many courthouses date to the era of the WPA (an employment program created by President Roosevelt in 1935). Many are facing issues due to the recession and deferred maintenance, he said. 

Asked which of his most recent courthouse designs could be compared to Thurston County, he said he recently designed the new Kitsap County courthouse in Port Orchard. Thomas Architecture Studios is the firm leading that project as well.

“The region is growing in population and their courthouse needs are very similar - issues of security, code issues, and seismic concerns,” he said.

The $200 Million Dollar Question

The county is looking at an estimated, minimum $200 million project.

Thomas declined to estimate a total project cost for each option, saying that has not yet been determined. Property acquisition costs alone will vary wildly, he said.

There are two options for funding the project. The first is to issue a property tax called a general obligation bond that would require 60 percent of the vote to pass and a 40 percent turnout voting yes.  

The second option is a property tax called a levy lid lift, accomplished with a simple majority vote.

According to the Municipal Research Service Center (MRSC), new state legislation that became effective in June allows cities and counties to exempt senior citizens, disabled veterans, and other people with disabilities as defined in RCW 84.36.381 from a tax increase resulting from a levy lid lift. 

This exemption is optional. If a jurisdiction is planning a levy lid lift and wants to exempt these individuals, it must state the exemption in the ballot measure placed before the voters.

Little Hollywood asked county budget director Robin Campbell on Wednesday what funding route the board of commissioners will choose.

Campbell said the commissioners are leaning toward the levy lid lift because it's a whole lot easier, and would probably consider a property tax exemption for eligible individuals, but added, we're not that far down the road.

Due to another recent legislative change that is special to Thurston County, the levy lid lift would be required to be paid over a period of 25 years instead of the previously required nine years, she said.

When the commissioners choose a funding option, voters will vote on it in August, 2019.

According to a July report in the Kitsap Sun newspaper, an undetermined amount of non-voted bond debt will be used to pay for the Kitsap County courthouse construction.

The report says Thomas shared four design options with the Port Orchard City Council ranging in height from four to seven stories. He cautioned council members that what is eventually built will likely look significantly different given the county's budget constraints and other factors in the planning process.

Open Houses for the Thurston County Courthouse and Civic Center Project  

Several upcoming public open houses are scheduled. On November 6, there will be five sessions with a specific focus for each session. Anyone may attend any session:

9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. (Real Estate and Design), 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. (Municipal Employees), 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. (Legal Profession), 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. (Other Stakeholders), 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. (General Public) at Lacey Community Center, 6729 Pacific Ave. SE, Olympia

November 7, 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. at City of Rainier, 102 Rochester St. W, Rainier

November 7, 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. at Rochester High School Commons, 19800 Carper Rd. SW, Rochester

Above: John Vanek created and donated his artwork titled, “Justice,” to the City of Olympia as part of the Art in Public Spaces program in 2012. It is at the Lee Creighton Justice Center.

For more information from Thurston County about the Thurston County Courthouse and Civic Center Project, go to

The Center for Court Innovation and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) wrote a report last year assessing the court’s internal processes and facility strengths and weaknesses regarding access to justice. In the report, several recommendations for improvements were made. The report is available at

Recent Little Hollywood interviews of Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim and Prosecuting Attorney candidate Victor Minjares and Thurston County Commission candidate Tye Menser all mention Thurston County Courthouse issues and current law and justice models. Go to and type key words into the search button.

For more information about Yvonne McDonald, go to