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Islanders weigh costs, benefits of PEAK
As the PEAK project moves forward toward final approval and construction, a good deal of missinformation exists about the project. For the benefit of all, the record must be set straight.
MYTH: PEAK should be built on the B&G Club’s existing property. FACT: This project began with an attempt to renovate the 95-year-old building, but the site is too small to accommodate even a teen center let alone a significant increase in gym space.
MYTH: PEAK is a regional facility. FACT: The PEAK is for the youth and teens of Mercer Island, and was designed to address our needs, no one else’s.
MYTH: The PEAK is oversized relative to the Federal Way facility. FACT: The Federal Way EX3 is strictly a teen center. The comparable portion of PEAK is actually considerably smaller, but PEAK also includes a new Boys and Girls Club for younger children, a child care center, space for wrestling and gymnastics to be moved out of the high school to make way for more classrooms there, and a fieldhouse to help offset the critical shortage of indoor athletic facilities on the Island.
MYTH: We already have enough gyms. FACT: Any parent raising active kids on the Island today knows how ludicrous this claim is. Our facilities haven’t changed substantially in 30 years, but demand has skyrocketed as participation by girls and adults has grown, kids have begun playing many sports year round, and new sports have emerged. Still other programs simply do not exist, or are severely constrained by lack of indoor play spaces.
MYTH: The child care space at PEAK will be unsafe. FACT: The entire PEAK facility will be built according to the extensive licensing codes regulating such facilities.
MYTH: PEAK takes money away from education with no benefit to our schools. FACT: The money the school district is contributing to the project is from its capital fund, which by state law, can only be spent on construction, not on teachers or any other operating use. In return, the school district receives complete access to the entire facility from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. every school day, and to half the field house from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. every school day. This frees up space for four new permanent classrooms to be built at the high school, rather than spending $1 million for portables, as previously planned.
MYTH: PEAK will make traffic and parking problems around the North Mercer campus even worse. FACT: The opposite is true. By adding 99 new parking spaces, which will be available to students during school and major events such as football games, parking congestion in the neighborhood will be reduced. In addition, a new signal light at 86th and 40th will improve traffic flow, even with the small additional increase resulting from PEAK. A new master scheduling system for the entire North Mercer campus will ensure that major events at PEAK will not be scheduled during football games, swim meets or other high traffic events. Plus, high school students will be able to walk to PEAK, and there will be bus service between PEAK and the middle and elementary schools.
MYTH: PEAK will prevent us from building another school. FACT: The school district has done careful planning to ensure that another school can still be accommodated on the North Mercer campus if one is ever needed in the future.
MYTH: Public Land is being “given away” to a private corporation. FACT: The School District retains full ownership of their land and, in accordance with state law, retains the right to recapture it if necessary. The B&G Club property on West Mercer Way was purchased by the Boys and Girls Club of King County in 1984, via a private donation, not tax dollars.
MYTH: The East Seattle School will be torn down for private real estate development. FACT: Again, the opposite is true. The O’Brien family has generously agreed to purchase that land from the B&G Club specifically to prevent it from being sold to a developer, and has agreed to spend up to $2 million to retain the existing gym and t-ball field, and add a Little League ballfield and playground - essentially a new city park for a minimum of 10 years!
MYTH: PEAK is a waste of taxpayer money. FACT: Between these two projects, our community is receiving $24 million in new youth facilities for a mere $2 million in public funds and a half acre of unused land. With over 90% of the funding coming from voluntary private donations, PEAK is a gift for taxpayers. Imagine if all public projects could be funded for 10 cents on the dollar!
With the signing of the lease with PEAK, the School Board has signed away a legacy for children. Apart from the promises of PEAK — presuming teens will come to a mixed age facility — we need to focus on the children in our school system, and the children already served by the good North Mercer tenants such as the Youth Theatre, Country Village preschool and daycare, the other preschools and CHILD, the special needs school.
In 10 years, our Island will hit another population high. Mercer Island children will again crowd classrooms; administrators and the School Board will look to build. Maxing out the impervious surface for the entire campus, PEAK sucks out the expansion options for other worthy programs that don't have the advantage of a private East Seattle campus (current Boys and Girls Club site). No tenant — CHILD, the Theatre, or childcare — can expand or substantially remodel since any new code would trigger a demand for more paved surface which PEAK entirely consumes. To build on current campuses would require the expensive option of building up — no more horizontal expansion is permitted by code.
Another option would be to evict and replace. To which beloved institution will you show the door? The 300 children of CHILD, preschools, and daycare, the 1,600 children passing through the Youth Theatre each year or the children served by PEAK in its 8-year-old building? This is the legacy today's School Board is passing on. If there were land conserved on this campus, the options would be wider. PEAK is not occupying unusable land; it is consuming the School District's options.
This is actually a double blow; the campus loses the land to a building, and East Seattle will lose its green space, after the O'Brien fields give way to homes after the 10-year expiration date. We must ask, “Does BGC have the interests of MI residents at heart?” They were instrumental in limiting the scope of the facilities at the Community Center, whose critical mass as a result is arguably below a full scale community center’s draw, in an effort to get a million dollar handout from the City Council for its B&G facilities. PEAK is another turn of the same screw.
Another legacy lies buried in the budget; the 15 year, $300,000 annual payment to finance PEAK and the high school remodel will be diverted from “unanticipated maintenance expenses” for schools and the buildings rented to North Mercer Tenants. Last year, MISD couldn’t find the funds for the air conditioning at West Mercer’s portables so the PTA stepped up. How can it now divert its entire maintenance reserve and cross its fingers that problems won’t arise at its aging North Mercer buildings and schools for over a decade?
The School Board claims that construction costs are a different funding bucket from the leaking one of general funds for classrooms. Public trust, however, comes in one bucket. Having ducked a public vote for construction, the School Board nevertheless still needs votes for its biannual levies. Passing on a legacy of fiscal shuffling and zeroing out expansion options damages irrevocably the students and citizens of Mercer Island for the panic of a private club that has been thrashing about for years to get its own interests served.