Move the old county courthouse to downtown

The constant and sometimes contentious conversations about the state of downtown Olympia over the past year — including The Olympian’s three-part series and public forum — have not pleased everyone, but they’ve caused some people to start thinking creatively.

Thurston County presiding Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy and presiding District Court Judge Brett Buckley are among those envisioning out-of-the-box solutions. The judges have proposed the relocation of the Thurston County courthouse from courthouse hill to downtown Olympia.

It’s a transformative idea that holds incredible promise, even as it presents a number of logistical, fiscal and political challenges.

Imagine that within a single project the community could achieve these desirable outcomes:

Replace the obsolescent court buildings with a facility that provides adequate space, 21st century technology, and better security for judges, jurors and the public,.

Create prime real estate on courthouse hill for view condominiums and multi- family housing, including a scenic trail and a neighborhood retail district.

Move 200 to 300 court employees, prosecutors and lawyers into downtown offices, bringing much-needed commerce to area coffee shops, restaurants and shops.

Create the need and means to build a parking garage that would also be available to the public.

And possibly do all of this, posits Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, with a “thoughtful approach to property transfers and swaps (that) will make this very affordable for taxpayers.”

The current county courthouse is so out of date that, according to a local architect’s study, the cost of renovation no longer makes economic sense. The buildings are decaying, and even with remodeling, could be antiquated in another 10 years.

The study concluded that the current facility provides only half of the space the courthouse operation requires. Individuals on trial walk past judges and juries in close proximity, increasing security risks and the possibility of a mistrial. Juries often linger in hallways, mixed together with defendants and other people in congested areas.

There are plenty of other problems, too. The building’s digital cabling is outdated. Parking is abysmal. Because of its location, public access is challenging for many people.

If new county court facilities were located on the vacant lot south of the new Hands On Children’s Museum, it would pace the county seat adjacent to a regional transit hub. That would provide greater public access, and, best of all, could give the city enough scale for transit-oriented housing.

So far, that site has not proved viable for commercial development. Several proposals, including one for a major hotel, have been abandoned.

Buxbaum believes the right kind of development could help the city improve water quality in Moxlie Creek and East Bay, as well as adding features to increase the creek’s capacity for fish access.

It all sounds like a wonderful match with plenty of benefits for everyone. It could take years to resolve all the details in such a complex plan, but this is an idea worth more conversation.