Mercer Island sits between the first and fifth largest cities in the state, and is known for its parks, rural character and as a refuge from the craziness of its more populated surroundings. Mercerdale Park is at the center of Islanders’ struggle to remain suburban in an increasingly urbanized region.
In 1956, the Mercer Island School District purchased Mercerdale as a possible school site. Changing state requirements left Mercerdale too small to support a school. In 1970, the district tried to sell Mercerdale, but under state law at the time they needed a public vote: Island voters rejected the sale (Reporter, Feb. 12, 1970).
In 1960, the city incorporated and I arrived three years later. Since incorporation, there were multiple attempts to “energize” the city by filling Mercerdale with public and/or private buildings, culminating in the 1976 joint city/MISD community center plan (Reporter, Oct. 7, 1976; Nov. 4, 1976). That plan included City Hall, the library, a joint city/MISD maintenance/bus barn facility, a soccer field and parking. The community center plan was dependent on a public works federal grant that the city didn’t get.
Mercer Island can be frustrating for those coming from urbanized areas because it’s decentralized with City Hall, the library the fire stations, the Community Center and the Parks Department all in different places.
In the early 1980s, the idea returned of centralizing the Island by filling Mercerdale Park with public buildings, culminating in the 1985 Civic Center Plan (Reporter, Oct. 22, 1985). That plan included City Hall, the library, a Community Center, a fire station, a performing arts center with outdoor theater, and parking. That plan died under the weight of heavy Islander opposition. After the collapse, Mayor Jarrett admitted that the mistake was to go forward based on the recommendation of a small group. “We didn’t go through and debate in public whether this [Civic Center Plan] was the right thing to do.” (Reporter, May 21, 1986).
Our leaders decided that Islanders were frightened by the scale of change so to get Island approval they needed to get one building first and the rest would follow, and that has been the strategy ever since. In 1987, a ballot issue for City Hall only in Mercerdale Park was voted. A fantasy schematic was circulated with City Hall surrounded by soccer fields, but the real plan was to follow City Hall with other public buildings (Reporter, Oct. 28, 1987). Islanders rejected Mercerdale as the site of City Hall, which was, instead, built in its current location.
Following the same single building strategy, in 1997 the city proposed building a new fire station in Mercerdale Park. As a result of blistering public disapproval, the fire station was rebuilt in its current location (Reporter, Sept. 17, 1997).
Our village green
We are faced again with another building attempt in Mercerdale Park from those who seek to urbanize our suburban Island. On July 30, 2014, in promoting the Mercer Island Center for the Arts to the state, Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz said, “…you’ve got this huge city of Seattle, you’ve got this huge city of Bellevue, you’ve got Mercer Island right between. Everyone would think that this should be a thriving economic area, but you walk into our Town Center and there is nothing going on … MICA [can] … make a huge impact economically on Mercer Island.”
After the 1987 City Hall vote, our community came together and concluded that the mandate of the public was that Mercerdale Park should remain public and green. Mercerdale Park is our village green, the center of Islanders’ struggle to remain suburban in an increasingly urbanized region, and it should remain our village green.
Ira Appelman has been a member of groups protecting the following parks from over-development: Mercerdale, Clise, Island Crest, Upper and Lower Luther Burbank and Pioneer.