Library remodel set to go this fall

Above, a floor plan for the remodeled Mercer Island library. Neighbors still disagree with many features, like the removal of a drive-through book drop but KCLS says it will move forward with little input from committee members. - Contributed Photo
Above, a floor plan for the remodeled Mercer Island library. Neighbors still disagree with many features, like the removal of a drive-through book drop but KCLS says it will move forward with little input from committee members.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

At a King County Library System (KCLS) Board of Trustees meeting last Wednesday, May 28 interim director Julie Brand said it will move ahead with remodel construction plans after allowing for four months of public input.

“The Board supported where we’d arrived with the remodel plan, so we’re moving forward,” said Brand on Friday. “We’re committed to giving the city construction updates as the project progresses...But other than that we’re at a phase where public input is no further.”

The news was met with mixed reactions. KCLS and the community ended up compromising on a number of points after agreeing to a city appointed Library Committee composed of ten people assigned to collect further input. A Concerned Citizens Committee also sprouted from neighborhood concerns.

“Am I totally happy? No, there are some things I’d prefer to be different,” said Sandra Lindstrom a member of the Library Committee, who has many uses for the space, among them tutoring in the afternoons. “But I certainly can accept the way it is and I have a better understanding of why [KCLS] is not making some changes we would like.”

Others expressed deeper frustrations.

“It’s like a burglar came into your home and stole all kinds of things... and then returned 50 percent or 40 percent of it,” said Gary Robinson. “That’s the position [we’re in] with KCLS...I’m trying to think what adjective to use to describe this process and the total tone deafness of KCLS for the community members and library patrons.”

Among the points KCLS negotiated on was the placement of the meeting room. In recent remodels elsewhere, staff have centered the meeting room to encourage its use as public space, but some neighbors thought the central location would be disruptive. The meeting room will stay where it is, but the wall between it and the children’s area will become glass so that staff have greater visibility into the space. A new window will be installed in the children’s area, looking out onto the rabbit statue at the front entrance. There will also be two entrances into the children’s area instead of one, as some had wanted.

The vestibule will become more narrow and no longer contain the entrance to the meeting room. KCLS staff also worked to ensure Friends of the Library has more wall space for book displays and storage.

“It’s actually more than we’ve ever given any other Friends of the Library group, anywhere,” said Brand.

A display area will be to the left of the meeting room. On the wall behind it will be a storage cabinet. Across from the space, next to a self-checkout machine will also be a built-in book donation cabinet.

Neighbors also adamantly petitioned to keep the library’s curved wall. Aside the conference room will be a study room – only one instead of the two proposed and requested by many library users, because Brand said the additional unit would have obstructed the children’s area. The Concerned Citizens Committee proposed an “L-shaped” space that would have allowed for both.

An opaque covering over the skylight will come down and be replaced with more up-to-date material to better filter the light.

Neighbors were not happy with original plans and asked that architects honor its current design. KCLS went back to engineers to figure out a way to do so. Some library users are still unhappy with the hanging lights proposed but Brand said staff needed to find a better way to distribute light throughout the space. Staff rethought the décor of the space too. Bright, angular furniture presented at a February public meeting was met by wide disapproval. Architects returned to the drawing board and devised a plan for a furniture set that felt like something you might find in a living room.

The exterior drive-through book drop will be lost, though. KCLS called it a safety issue, explaining that the drop operated as a conveyor belt. Staff often had to crawl behind it to pick up fallen books. A book drop on the opposite side will remain, requiring library users to park and get out of their cars.

“That’s been the hardest thing about this whole process,” said Brand. “There were a lot of things that [people] didn’t understand about the operation of the library and that’s our decision to make. The operation of the library is not a decision for anyone else to make and the book drop was definitely one of those things.”

Though Wednesday’s meeting allowed audience members to give full testimonials – not the usual three minute limit – KCLS was not required to vote on final design plans.

“At the end, the Board agreed we’re at a good place. We’ve spent four months engaging with the community. We’ve dramatically altered our plans,” said Brand. “Ultimately we’re moving ahead with construction.”

Brand said the added time and the back-and-forth it created with architects likely contributed to $60,000 more in costs – money she says that is well spent for the chance to hear from the community. KCLS will save some money by retaining the library’s curved wall but many committee members still hope for more, or at the very least continued discussion with staff throughout.

“Whenever you do a building remodel, issues come up. We would like them to ask for our committee [to reconvene] and [for KCLS] to get our input about what’s the best way to make these changes," said Lindstrom.

Islander Meg Lippert questions whether the remodel accomplishes the goals outlined in the 2004 bond issue – an updated HVAC and electrical systems, Wi-Fi, access to more books and materials and an automated book handling system.

Early KCLS remodel projects utilized the automated book handling system but staff later determined that installation of the machine wasn’t always feasible for libraries with smaller circulations.

During the remodel which KCLS hopes to have underway by fall of this year, the library is considering holding temporary quarters at two off-site locations – the Congregational Church and a 3,000 sq. ft. space behind the North-end Rite Aid.

“We had to find those places,” said Robinson, who notes that he uses the library three to four times a week. “KCLS didn’t do it...I used to work at Boeing and if you made a move at Boeing, you always knew where we were putting the people who would be displaced.”

The Concerned Citizens Committee collected 1,128 signatures of Islanders who didn’t want the library closed during construction if an adequate temporary location wasn’t identified. KCLS is still negotiating the alternate spaces. Brand said it usually spends between $3,000 and $4,000 a month for rentals but Congregational Church originally asked for $10,000.

“We’ve made it very clear, this was a give-and-take,” said Brand. “Not everybody was going to get what they wanted. But we would be flexible and adapt where we could.”

She added: “I think the process was very positive. Since 2004 we’ve done 34 construction projects on new libraries, either expansions or remodels, and throughout that process every community has been a little different. We were happy to put [the project] on pause and walk away with a better understanding of what’s important to [this community] and sacred to them.”

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