Council moving beyond I-90 issues

After Islanders vocalized concerns about a KCLS library remodel at several public meetings this past week, City Council responded in kind. Council sent a letter to the KCLS Board, requesting a 90 day postponement of construction to allow for more input from Islanders.

That and other topics took the stage at a planning session this weekend, which will set the city’s 2014 agenda. The annual “retreat” has been a tradition since 1987 and outlines city priorities for the year ahead. Among the topics discussed were the Town Center, a performance venue for the Island and transportation.

Library remodel

Mercer Island’s library remodel is funded by a 2004 bond passed by King County voters and will address three main grievances: The uneven lighting, acoustics and flow of the space. But many library users worry the remodel is just change for the sake of it. Since a KCLS presentation Jan. 7 about the latest design plans, several Islanders have organized and brought their case to the city.

Fifty people signed a petition passed around at an extended study session Tuesday, Jan. 21. The petition requests a project delay until a representative is selected or advisory committee formed to speak to the desired scope and design of the space.

Though testimony varied, all in Tuesday’s crowd said they were avid users of the library who wanted to make sure the space retained its charm and Mercer Island roots.

“We would like a remodeling plan that addresses any necessary upgrades, while keeping the character of the current library,” said Marcia Mellinger to council.

At an initial meeting Jan. 7, KCLS staff responded to audience hesitation by claiming construction costs were already on the rise, and that the project could be jeopardized if stalled. Staff also reassured the crowd that similar projects had been successfully completed in other cities.

Library users also spoke at the weekend’s Friday planning session during a KCLS staff presentation. Reacting to the strong turnout, city council sent a letter to the KCLS  Board of Trustees in anticipation of its meeting, Wednesday, Jan. 29. The letter, signed by Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz on behalf of council, reads: “The number of people raising issues, the long history these individuals have with both the library and civic matters on Mercer Island and elsewhere, and the manner in which the renovation project has evolved all lead us to the conclusion that more public input is required.”

The letter goes on to express council concern that the interim space, Trinity Lutheran Church, isn’t adequate for the many dependent on the library. Council promises to work with KCLS to find more local sites, suggesting for some services the Mercer Island Community and Events Center.

Council also raises eyebrows at the evolving budget of the project. When voters first approved the 2004 bond, the library was to receive $730,000. At a meeting last June, that number had increased to $1.6 million and then again to $3.4 million in January.

“We truly appreciate the additional resources being allocated to our library,” reads the statement from council. “What these numbers tell us, however, is that we are all looking at a significantly different project than was contemplated in 2004 and even as recently as seven months ago.”

Mercer Island Center for the Arts

“This could create a cultural soul for [the Island],” said John Gordon Hill, Chair of the Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) speaking to plans for a more permanent Island venue.

MICA, as the project is being pitched wouldn’t only be home to Youth Theater Northwest (YTN), which will lose its presently leased space to the school district, but would host plays, dances, concerts, lectures and films.

Last year the city explored six alternative sites for YTN, including a plot of land near Mercerdale and Bicentennial Park, where the recycling center used to be located. The city reserved the land to further study its options but several councilmembers and residents expressed their concerns about gifting the property, parking at the site and its long-term upkeep.

“This is the hole, the missing puzzle piece in our community,” said Hill.

MICA is now applying for nonprofit status. That hasn’t stopped it from securing $105,000 in seed money.

Hill told Saturday’s crowd that conversations with regional arts organizations, like ACT Theatre, the Seattle Shakespeare Company and even Teatro ZinZanni had expressed interest in using a future facility for productions.

Though much of the project is still in the broad strokes visionary stage, Hill said he expected the price tag to come to about $10 million, with ground breaking two years out and a possible opening date three years from now.

“Obviously there are many hurdles between now and then, but we don’t think it’s a bad thing to be ambitious,” he told Saturday’s audience.

The city is still discussing how it would partner with the venue.

Proponents of the site say it could bring life to Mercerdale Park and the north-end of the Island after hours. They see MICA as an extension of the Island’s downtown initiatives, “mitigation between Town Center and our backyards,” said Hill. They also point out the synergy between the proposal and existing hubs of activity on the Island, like the farmer’s market and the city’s Music in the Park series. A café, restrooms and storage space to be used by the market, could also be worked into plans.

But Mayor Bruce Bassett asked the question on everyone’s mind—where would people park? Hill said it wasn’t cost effective to build a parking lot exclusively for the new venue. MICA leadership have talked to neighbors Farmers Insurance, Wells Fargo and Evergreen Covenant Church, among others, about using their parking lots. Because most performances would be after business hours, there would be no competition for parking, said Hill. He added that another possibility was to run a shuttle between the venue and the North Park-and-Ride.

Grausz said that the city would work with MICA to move the process forward. Even if it doesn’t contribute, it is city land and decisions will have to be made about how it interfaces with the future venue. Grausz said for a successful fundraising campaign, MICA would need to present a drawing or plan that brings the project to life for Islanders.

Others agreed. “As one of the most vocal opponents originally,” said Councilmember Jane Brahm, “I think we’re getting there.”

The Town Center

Revitalizing Town Center has been a long but still undefined goal of city staff and council.

Council spent about an hour on Saturday trying to articulate how the conversation should progress in 2014. Mayor Bassett pointed out that for those fresh off the campaign trail, Town Center was high on the minds of the public. What exactly residents wanted to see though, was still unclear.

“[There’s an] understanding of a need for orchestration,” said Councilmember Benson Wong, insight gleaned while doorbelling last fall. “Nobody can articulate it well because it’s somewhat subjective. But the thinking is that something is lacking.”

Council also noted that light rail’s eventual presence would greatly increase the foot traffic into its downtown core.

Many ideas have been tossed around, from updates to Mercer Island zoning to a more central, open space. Grausz cautioned that any proposal be well-defined and shared with the public, so as not to “scare people.”

In the interim, Senn suggested a booster committee to address smaller changes, while the city also adopted long-range goals. That booster committee could be responsible for everything from backing a “shop local” movement, to connecting in person with businesses, and drafting letters to welcome new residents to the Island.  Council also expressed interest in better incorporating Town Center’s new apartment units into the community.

“We’ve never thought about them as part of Mercer Island,” said Senn.


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