This year, Mercer Island celebrated the opening of a new elementary school and grocery store, along with the re-opening of the library, debated if arts centers and/or off-leash dogs should be allowed in parks and saw one of its own bring an MLS Cup home.
At its January planning session, the Mercer Island City Council agreed that 2016 would be a year to “put the puck in the net” and wrap up some ongoing processes, including the Comprehensive Plan and Town Center vision. As both were finalized, the national focus went to the presidential election. Then, Mercer Island faced its own issues from the federal government, as the nation’s top authority on highways threw a wrench into long-agreed upon plans for the configuration of and access to Interstate 90 once light rail construction begins.
The council also tackled impending budget deficits and concerns about residential development, under the guidance of two interim city managers. Local issues will likely be affected by changes at the regional, state and national levels next year, but if this year is any indication, the values, traditions and community that define Mercer Island will stay strong in the next year and those that follow.
The year began with some excitement in the Seattle sports world. Island native Jordan Morris started his professional soccer journey, signing a homegrown contract with the Seattle Sounders. The team would end up at the bottom of its conference in July, then go on to win the MLS Cup in December. Morris was the MLS Rookie of the Year. Three Islanders started their journeys in city politics, as Dave Wisenteiner, Wendy Weiker and Jeff Sanderson were sworn in to their council positions. Debbie Bertlin was chosen as deputy mayor, while Bruce Bassett remained mayor.
Frustrations about parkland and transportation became evident early in the year. The Mercer Island City Council decided against an Island-wide advisory vote on the location of the planned Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) in Mercerdale Park, prompting a group of citizens concerned about Island parks to file three initiative petitions with the city in 2016. None had enough signatures to make it on to the ballot. The council also decided to hire transportation consultants to help with negotiations with Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). At the state level, Senate Republicans voted to fire WSDOT head Lynn Peterson, somewhat foreshadowing the partisan politics to come later in the year at the national level.
Some long-standing traditions continued this year, while others started new. The Mercer Island Preschool Association celebrated its 50th Circus event, while the Mercer Island School District handed out its first Pathfinder awards for distinguished alumni. Local architect Suzanne Zahr opened a design-build studio and gallery in Town Center, and announced that she wanted to work with local restaurants and galleries to host monthly art viewing events. Mercer Island’s First Thursday Art and Wine is still going strong.
As spring sprung, diversity and sustainability were celebrated in Mercer Island. City Hall hosted a traveling art exhibit urging Eastsiders to “Reject the Rags of Racism and Live into the Riches of Diversity,” which started in response to a black Redmond business owner finding a KKK robe at her shop. The city also put on its Leap for Green fair. Transportation changes continued, as the new State Route 520 bridge opened and Sound Transit had hearings on its final draft plan for ST3.
The Joint Planning-Design Commission, which had been working on a new Town Center code since the beginning of the year, handed over the work to the City Council, after proposing a plan that limited building height in response to comments and concerns from community members. One of the apartment buildings that spurred the need for a new code, the Hadley, announced that it was planning a fall opening and already had three tenants: Mioposto pizzeria, OrangeTheory Fitness and Freshy’s Market. Islander Lisa Wellman declared that she would be running against Steve Litzow for his 41st District Senate seat.
School was out for the summer, but Mercer Island schools were still in the news. Northwood Elementary, the first new school building constructed on the Island since 1963, opened its doors for a community reception, while a local campaign took the School Board to task on later start times. Mercer Island High School had its 59th annual commencement, graduating 345 students. On the city side, Mercer Island conducted a Cascadia Rising exercise to test if its earthquake preparedness earthquake, and finalized the Town Center plan.
Fittingly, as Mercer Island commemorated the “symphony of summer” at its annual Summer Celebration, longtime children’s musician Nancy Stewart was honored as the Citizen of the Year. In parks news, mosaics were installed at the Luther Burbank playground and Calkins Point re-opened after a major restoration. The Mercer Island Library also re-opened after a much shorter closure than the one originally planned, and a minimal renovation that satisfied both the King County Library System, which owns and operates the facility, and the Island community.
Wildflowers bloomed in the medians of Island Crest Way as the city heard from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that Islanders driving alone would no longer be able to use that ramp to get to I-90. Besides the flowers, there were other bright spots. The Antique Kids dance group at Covenant Shores celebrated its 20th anniversary, and a local family started a “Mercer Island Rocks” Facebook page, inspired by a similar group in Whidbey Island and the gaming phenomenon Pokemon Go.
The start of the fall season was characterized by two lively Town Center Events. The Mercer Island Chamber’s annual Art Uncorked brought Islanders together for an evening filled with music, art, food and wine, while pizza lovers formed a line around the block when Pagliacci Pizza opened and gave away two free slices to each customer. In city news, the council established a timeline to review residential development standards and decided to continue funding mental health counselors in schools, despite budget challenges. It would later debate other funding mechanisms for these types of programs, including a levy lid lift.
It was a big month for the high school, which hosted All-Island Band Night and a production of student-written plays, and boasted about one of its seniors earning perfect scores on two AP tests. Celebrating Halloween and Breast Cancer Awareness month, Islanders organized a Pumpkin Walk in Pioneer Park and a Making Strides Walk at Covenant Shores. Gearing up for the election, Northwood hosted a legislative forum for candidates in the 41st District, while the City Council declined to take a position on ST3, citing complications with the implementation of ST2.
The election rocked the world, and the local community. Longtime state Sen. Steve Litzow was defeated by Lisa Wellman, as female candidates sweep the 41st District and Islanders and Democrats Tana Senn and Judy Clibborn won their reelection bids. Meanwhile, the highest glass ceiling remained intact as Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become president-elect. A new grocery store, New Seasons, opened on the Island. The council decided to increase its commitment to affordable housing in the city’s budget, and reaffirmed the Mercer Island’s values of civility, equality, diversity and sustainability in the wake of the election. The city also announced the hiring of a permanent city manager, Julie Underwood.
In the face of changes coming to the city, the Mercer Island Chamber gave its Business of the Year award to a community institution and the oldest business on the Island, the Roanoke Inn. Sound Transit released its near-final design for the Mercer Island light rail station and its plan to mitigate traffic impacts from the South Bellevue Park and Ride closure, neither of which sat well with Islanders. Community groups, including Vision Mercer Island and Save our Suburbs, continued to gather data and challenge the council on transportation decisions, and the School Board also expressed its concerns. The community celebrated the holiday season with two ceremonies: lighting the Mercerdale tree and a 6-foot menorahs at QFC and New Seasons.