My wife and I have been following arguments for and against the MICA proposal to build a performing arts center in Mercerdale Park for some time. While we both strongly believe in supporting the arts, we have a number of concerns about the proposal as it stands.
The Deal: Public land, private use? We’re not aware of any other situation in which the city has allowed a private venture to use public, city-owned land for any project let alone a project of this size. If this is legal within the city’s charter, it certainly comes close to overstepping the bounds of that charter.
It not only sets a dangerous precedent, it also calls into question the council’s sense of both fairness and what is morally right. MICA’s intent—to save Youth Theatre Northwest and provide it a permanent home—is an admirable one. However, when YTN lost its lease on the north campus, owned by the Mercer Island School District, six other charitable organizations providing benefits to the community also were displaced. Did the city offer to find any of them a home on city-owned land? So, why is the city now offering to give one of the displaced organizations what amounts to rent of $ per year for 50 years (as long as someone else puts up the money for a building, of course)?
Cost: When a group like MICA comes along and offers to construct a $15 million facility to benefit the community, the temptation to jump on the offer is strong. But the council needs to look at the long-term cost and viability of the project. MICA has stated that Youth Theatre Northwest will be its primary tenant, essentially paying the principal operating costs. YTN’s financial history, however, has left it near the brink of insolvency several times. The city, in fact, bailed YTN out in 2009 with a $20,000 grant—taxpayers’ money. In 2013, YTN even refused to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau. (We won’t even go into the arrest and conviction of a YTN staff member). For all the good YTN has done for its attendees, it has a checkered history of success.
A major question for us—and for you—is what happens if MICA falls into insolvency? What if YTN can’t pay its rent? How does MICA come up with the operating budget to keep a performing arts center open? Bellevue Youth Theater, which is owned and operated by the city of Bellevue, incurs a cost of between $290,000 and $388,000 annually on staff salaries alone. Add in operating costs of utilities, maintenance, production supplies, etc., not to mention cost of benefits for employees, and the total operating budget is obviously much higher. If MICA’s primary tenant pays $32,000 per month, that would almost cover the high end of staff salaries, assuming BYT and MICA operate in much the same way, but none of the hard costs to maintain the building.
Mercer Island, however, is not Bellevue. Bellevue is six times our size, giving an operation like BYT a much larger population to draw from. It’s also not an island. MI is not a destination location; people don’t come here from off-island to shop or eat in restaurants, or for entertainment. The arts center will have to draw on the local population to survive, but will that be enough? And if MICA can’t come up with operating costs, what then? The center will be built on city land. Will the city become the owner of the building in the event MICA can’t continue to operate it? If so, where will the city come up with the funds to operate the center? A taxpayer levy?
Our point is that council members should view this project in much the same way as the MICC rebuild of several years ago—a community-approved, taxpayer-funded project. Despite MICA’s assurances, it’s not out the realm of possibility that this center will turn out to be taxpayer-funded even though we didn’t have the chance to vote on it.
Size. With the central business district already becoming overwhelmed with large, generic mixed-use developments, the proposed art center would impose a huge presence in what has been an open, relatively unspoiled public space. One of the many reasons people move to MI is its almost rural feel in an urban/suburban environment. The foresight to preserve large tracts of land such as Pioneer Park and the Mercerdale hillside is what has created the island’s character in the face of unceasing development. Instead of a view of the natural Mercerdale hillside, most of the west side of the park would be dominated by the proposed performing arts center façade.
Parking. MICA will provide no parking with the proposed variance the city may allow. There is no parking available for the center in the downtown area. For MICA—and you—to assume that Farmers Insurance will continues its largesse and offer its lot for MICA or YTN productions (and only on nights and weekends) is folly. And without on-site parking, traffic around the center and the park during shows will likely require the city to staff additional MIPD personnel as it does for parades and other special events. (Yet another expense—have you planned for it?)
Encroachments. The proposed building’s requirement for a fire lane takes up a much larger percentage of usable parkland than the present walking path and creates more impervious surface that cannot absorb rainfall. The huge water retention tank necessary to mitigate the effects of losing the native plant garden and some wetland is outside the boundaries of the property under proposed lease to MICA. Does that mean it’s the city’s responsibility? At what cost? The destruction of natural habitat to accommodate the massive footprint of the center goes against every principal we hold dear for this community and for the world at large in this day and age. We shouldn’t let “progress” always dictate, even when it appears that someone else will be paying for the shiny building.
(To be continued in an upcoming edition).
Michael W. Sherer