At a meeting Tuesday, Jan. 12, Islanders got a preview of narrowed design plans for a major remodel of the Mercer Island Library. The response was mixed. Many Islanders felt they were losing the most beloved elements of the existing structure, others questioned if the remodel was needed in the first place.
“A lot of people were concerned they were doing things that aren’t necessary and very expensive, that will leave us with something worse than we started with,” said Islander Marcia Mellinger.
The remodel, funded by a bond issue passed in 2003 by King County voters, was intended to address three main grievances: acoustics, lighting and flow. According to project engineers the sloped wood of the skylight is the source of traveling sound. Outdated ceiling tiles around the perimeter of the building will be replaced to further improve acoustics. Library staff and attendants also acknowledged that many parts of the library were over-lit, while other corners were too dim.
“We’re just improving the character of what’s inside,” assured Ruth Baleiko, an architect from Miller Hull Partnership.
Most changes were confined by the footprint of the space but sections will be rearranged and the collection slightly reduced. Among the proposed changes are a floor-to-ceiling window to the left of the entrance, just behind the existing bronze rabbit statue, a corner that will eventually become the children’s collection. Baleiko said the window would add light and activity to a section previously closed off.
The bathroom will be outfitted with new furnishings and shear walls will be added to the west perimeter of the children’s section (now the meeting room). North of that, on the western wall of the library will be a multi-purpose space, two study rooms with storage behind them and a small meeting room in the northwest corner. The information and check-out kiosk will also be shifted so it’s more centrally located, but disconnected from the staff’s workroom. Wood slats will be added over the skylight diffusing some of the glare, and with the hope, said Baleiko, that it will feel like less of a “big black mirror at night.”
But some Islanders wondered if the remodel was needed in the first place.
They pointed to the deep mahogany wood and other warm features about the library they feared would be lost. Though many of the design features are tentative, they reveal slick modern chairs, bright colors and blonde wood, a palette few in the audience were satisfied with.
“This feels like change for change’s sake,” said Bart Dawson to applause.
Many who spoke said they visited the library nearly every day, sometimes from the minute it opened, to the time it closed and expressed concern about what they would do in the interim.
During the remodel, which could last anywhere from six months to a year and begin as early as summer of 2014, Trinity Lutheran church will hold temporary quarters.
“[We could] lose our community gathering place for a year,” said Mellinger. “Upgrades can be important but I don’t think there’s a demonstrated need here.”
Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System told the audience remodels had been successfully completed in 30 to 40 projects. Ptacek also cautioned against mistaking the discontent of a few with overall disapproval.
On Feb. 1, Ptacek, who has led KCLS since 1989, is leaving to become the CEO of the Calgary Public Library in Alberta, Canada.
He recalled in 1993 when Islanders seemed opposed to the annexation of the library by KCLS, even though it was widely voted for. Ptacek also noted that waiting would make the project more expensive as the construction climate was heating up.
Permits for the remodel are expected to be submitted in February but audience members, concerned their voices weren’t heard, organized a second meeting on Sunday, Jan. 12 at the library.
“The King County library solicited public input at a meeting, but didn’t seem interested in entertaining input. The plan was finalized and they weren’t interested in tweaks [or] modifications,” said Mellinger. “It’s really a cold model that [KCLS] wants to plunk down in different communities with this ‘we know best’ attitude. And I think that doesn’t go over well in this community.”
Sunday’s meeting, attended by more than 30 concerned residents was also attended by KCLS board member Rob Spitzer, and Mercer Island City Councilmembers Benson Wong, Dan Grausz and Debbie Bertlin. The group will ask the council to appoint a Library Advisory Board to share community input. It will also ask for a resolution to delay construction for three months to allow for more public feedback. The group is asking for full disclosure of the proposed plan, including how much collections will be reduced.
Requests for information will be made at the City Council meeting on Jan. 21. A KCLS board meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m., Jan. 29 at the Bellevue library. Preview plans for the library remodel here. Concerned Islanders also launched a website on Sunday, Jan. 12. Visit it here.