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Steve’s Place memorial a touchy issue for city

Two years ago this month, former Islander Steve Haba passed away as a result of complications from type one diabetes. The 37-year-old Mercer Island High School Class of 1989 graduate loved the area and often met friends for barbecues and get-togethers at the Mercer Island parks.

“His friends could always count on him to get people together,” said Matt Haba, Steve’s brother.

Shortly after Steve’s death, Matt Haba approached the Mercer Island Parks Department about a donation in Steve’s name for the construction of a picnic area in memory of his late brother.

A year and a half after Matt Haba’s initial meeting with Parks Superintendent Keith Kerner, the Friends of Luther Burbank Park and other Islanders expressed concerns over the proposed $90,000 to $95,000 memorial “park within a park” that includes a 20-by-40-foot almond-shaped cement slab with cement benches, a space for local art, 14 native trees and a number of shrubs.

Matt Haba worked with a landscape architect out of Seattle and with the city arborist to select the foliage for the project. He also spent many hours with parks department officials to review the Luther Burbank Master Plan to create something that would benefit the park.

“We told the city that if they don’t want this, we won’t donate the money,” Matt Haba said. “We wanted to take a tragic situation in our lives and make something positive out of it.”

The fundraising Web site describes the project, called “Steve’s Place,” as “a gathering spot for friends, family and the many visitors of Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island.”

The Haba family, most of whom still make their homes on Mercer Island, will cover more than half the cost of the project, Matt Haba said.

So far, $10,000 has been raised for the project, which includes a grant from the Mercer Island Community Fund, Matt Haba said.

Steve’s Place is listed as a current project on the Northwest Parks Foundation Web site. The Foundation is a nonprofit research, advocacy and park planning group that works with communities to encourage an active lifestyle, according to the site. Nine percent of the money donated through the site for Steve’s place will go toward the Northwest Parks Foundation’s administrative and support costs.

Included in the online information is information about Steve Haba, a donation page, construction start date, “progress photos” of the site and a map that shows the location of Calkins Point, among other information.

Concerns over the project and the process surfaced during a recent meeting between Parks and Recreation Director Bruce Fletcher, Park Superintendent Keith Kerner and the Friends of Luther Burbank Park last Tuesday to discuss the Haba project.

Matt Haba did not attend the meeting.

“I was told I was not invited,” he said, adding that it’s unfortunate he wasn’t there to answer the Friends’ questions.

“I have no objections listening to their ideas,” he said. “I’d be delighted, actually.”

The group expressed anxiety over the size, use of concrete, location, continued maintenance costs and the project description on the Steve’s Place Web site.

From the information on the site, it appears that the city has approved the project, said Friends member Dorla Mason.

Both the parks sub-committee, which includes Deputy Mayor El Jahncke and Council members Dan Grausz and Mike Cero, and the City Council have yet to see the plans or approve the project.

Still, the question remains: Does Steve’s Place jibe with the Luther Burbank Master Plan and the park’s gift policy?

Friends member Sue Stewart doesn’t think it does. To hammer home her point, she read a section from the park’s gift policy.

“To strongly discourage gifts, park improvement and donor recognition object proposals are memorial in nature to emphasize that the park system exists to meet the varied recreational, social, wellness and educational needs of park users,” according to section 3.9 of the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department’s Policy on Park Improvement, Gift Acceptance and Donor Recognition approved by City Council in December 2003.

Others questioned whether the project met the Luther Burbank Master Plan, which contains a section on the proposed project site that reads, “Calkins Point continues to be a valuable habitat zone in the park, with a serene character. The master plan builds on this character with improved path access to the area without introducing significant new program elements.”

Amanda Clark, who first brought the project to the City Council’s attention at its June 21 meeting, would like to know why the project had not been brought forward for public input.

“This should have been reported earlier,” she said.

Clark isn’t opposed to the project; she just thinks it needs a few modifications.

Mayor Jim Pearman, a former chair of the parks board, wasn’t at the meeting, but he doesn’t see a problem with the project as long as it’s in line with the Master Plan and the Parks and Recreation’s gift-giving policy.

“There’s criteria to nicely say ‘no’ to things,” he said of a policy document that received some criticism during the drafting stages.

The Parks and Recreation “Park Improvement, Gift Acceptance and Donor Recognition” policy discourages memorial-type gifts and park improvements, limits park gifts and improvements to “benches, trees or other plant materials,” prohibits donor recognition on gifts in open space, and limits the number of projects that involve concrete and detract from natural areas.

Without such a policy, “pretty soon the whole Island would look like a memorial,” he said.

Myra Lupton, a member of Friends of Luther Burbank Park, also attended the meeting. She is uncertain if Calkins Point is an appropriate location for Steve’s Place.

“It’s a fundamental issue of what the city does with its public property,” she said later in the week.

The Seattle parks department doesn’t have a specific policy on memorials, but “memorial language” is prohibited from donor plaques, said Seattle Parks Foundation Programs Manager Jessica Sawver. In 1985 the Seattle City Council established a gift catalog to encourage donors to fund a project already on the city’s “wish list.”

“They want their parks to be living and not like a cemetery,” said Sawver.

Pearman likes the concept of an area with seating and appreciates the Haba family’s interest to improve the park.

“It appears to me the idea is in line [with the master plan], but the design is not in line,” he said, adding that now is a great time to start a discussion and find middle ground.

“All of us are exactly the same when it comes to Luther Burbank Park. We all love it and want to improve it,” he said.

The Parks and Recreation sub-committee will discuss Steve’s Place at the July 30 meeting at the Community Center at 7:30 a.m.

After all parties reach an agreement on the location and design, Fletcher will refer the plans to the City Council for a final decision.

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