KCLS to reconsider keeping Vashon's branch library at Ober Park

After an outpouring of opposition to the library's potential move out of Ober Park, the King County Library System (KCLS) and the Vashon Park District are poised to resume discussions about the location of the Island's heavily used and much-loved branch, both sides reported Wednesday.

The decision comes in the wake of a KCLS board meeting in Redmond Tuesday evening attended by about 25 Islanders, as well as a meeting on Vashon a week ago with a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 150 residents. At both meetings, dozens of Islanders said they wanted to see the library remain at Ober Park, where it's in the town core, on a quiet stretch of the highway and adjacent to one of the only public playgrounds on Vashon.

KCLS board members, after listening to Islanders for about 45 minutes Tuesday evening, told Bill Ptacek, the library system's executive director, to resume discussions with the park district board to see if the issues that had led the library system to seek a location elsewhere could be resolved.

At the same time, the library board told Ptacek to continue to pursue the possibility of siting the branch at a former machine shop at the proposed K2 Commons. In recent months, Ptacek has said the K2 site is the only viable alternative for the Vashon branch.

"In the interest of making sure the system is an intelligent, responsive and thorough process, the board would like the executive director to go back and revisit and explore with the parks commission to see if the issues ... could be responsibily addressed," said Robert Spitzer, a member of the KCLS board. "We want to make sure we had this important information before taking any final decisions."

Later Tuesday evening, park board Commissioner Bill Ameling, who attended the KCLS meeting, made it to the tail-end of the park board meeting and put forward a motion to offer up the land underneath the Vashon branch to the library system for a low-cost, multi-year lease or, if legally allowed, gift the land to KCLS. Such a move effectively rescinds a previous motion by the park district board, which said in early 2007 that it would not renew the library system's lease because of the park board's unhappiness with KCLS's plans. (The park district owns the land, while the library system owns the building.)

The park commission will vote on the motion at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 10.

Mike Collins, the newly elected chairman of the park board, said he has also asked for a meeting with Ptacek to begin trying to rebuild the frayed relationship between the two entities.

"I'm excited. I'm energized. I'm really pleased that this is moving forward, and I'm optimistic ... that it will conclude in a way that works for the community," Collins said.

The new tone and direction comes as a marked departure from the situation just a week ago, when dozens of Islanders — in pointed, passionate and sometimes angry comments — told Ptacek they were unhappy with the library system and its decision to move the library out of town. Some at the crowded meeting at McMurray Middle School even suggested the library system abandon its plans to build a larger library on Vashon altogether if it means moving it from its current location.

"This is a quirky place, and people don't mind having a quirky library," May Gerstle said to loud applause. "What can we do to have you reconsider what seems to be a fait accompli?"

"The idea of a siting a library next to a park is a dream come true for a planner," said Sam Hendricks, who heads Vashon HouseHold, which develops affordable and low-cost housing. "I cannot believe the decision is being made to take the library out of town."

Noting library officials could take "the easy choice" and continue down this path, Hendricks added, "I want to ask you to pause and reflect. You have the opportunity to do the right thing, the thing that excites and invigorates the community."

The Vashon meeting — pegged "an evening of conversation" in fliers by the library system — began with a 15-minute Power Point presentation by developer Dick Sontgerath, where he gave Islanders a glimpse of his plans to redevelop the K2 site. He and Truman O'Brien, a partner in the effort, have garnered commitments for 100,000 square feet of the space — two-thirds of the sprawling site, he said. On the drawing board, he said, are plans for a bowling alley, an event and conference center named after former Gov. Booth Gardner, a hotel, the Vashon Health Center, a music academy for kids, a fitness center, an indoor soccer park and 20 homes along the back side of the 18-acre property.

"What we heard from Islanders in some 300 tours is that they want a swimming pool, a bowling alley and an indoor soccer park," Sontgerath said.

With its proximity to the Island's public schools, Vashon Allied Arts and Open Space for Arts and Community, O'Brien added, "Our idea is that this will be the cultural and educational center of the Island."

Ptacek said the plan to move the library to the former ski-manufacturing site is independent of the K2 project. Library architects, however, are excited about the potential of the building KCLS hopes to buy. Architect Robert Miller called it a "large, clean space" that was "very intact structurally."

"We saw a lot of opportunity to create interesting spaces," he said.

But those attending the standing-room-only meeting at McMurray Middle School didn't seem swayed by the presentations. Two spoke in favor of the move; the vast majority, however, voiced ardent opposition.

Many said they feared moving the library would hurt Vashon's town core, undermining a plan that hundreds of Islanders helped to shape more than a decade ago.

"I'm disturbed that the first two plans were drawn up by ... hundreds of people 12 years ago, and it's almost as if we're getting a new town plan with five you determining what will happen," said Martin Koenig, a father of three.

Noting that library staff seems determined to give Vashon a larger library, even if it means sacrificing its current site, Koenig added that Islanders should be able to make that decision.

"You should give back to the community the opportunity to decide if they want size or site," he added.

Bettie Edwards, owner of The Little House, expressed similar sentiments, reading a letter that Islander Christine Beck had written.

"This will tear the heart out of the tiny town of Vashon," Edwards said, reading the letter. "I ask the KCLS director and board of trustees to look harder and longer at the plan."

In one of the most dramatic moments at the meeting, Bill Ameling, a commissioner on the Vashon Park District board, stood up, pointed at Ptacek and said loudly, "There's one reason this is not in Ober Park. He doesn't want to work with us."

The park board took the difficult stance of opposing the library system when it became clear that "they wanted to carve up the park," he said.

K2 Commons, Ameling added, "is a pretend project" premised on faulty assumptions and in need of the library system's money. "There is no way to support indoor soccer. There is not a pool in King County that isn't subsidized. You don't make money on a kitchen and a garden," he said.

Ptacek, asked Monday about the outpouring of opposition, noting that at a meeting two years ago he heard a different message from Islanders — that they wanted the library to be built as quickly as possible and to be the full 10,000 square feet library officials had promised in advance of the bond vote. He also noted that the library system has received e-mails and letters in support of the move to the K2 site.

"People are passionate about libraries ... because they're part of the community and people feel a strong sense of ownership," he said.

Asked if he's concerned the library might move there only to see the K2 Commons not come to fruition, he said it's really not the promise of the development that is the site's lure — rather, the fact that it's an intact building with all the infrastructure already in place.

"We do know that the schools aren't going to go away, and it's still close to the schools. And the highway isn't going to go away, and it's still on the highway," he said.

"It's not the same as the park, and no one says it is," he added. "But it's an accessible, visible location and is closer to other things."

But Wednesday, members of the KCLS board said the K2 site is no longer a given. If the library system finds it can't make the Ober Park site work, the K2 site remains quite viable, they said. But they now want to keep the library system's options open.

"I just hope we can make as many people on Vashon as happy as possible, because I know that's the goal of everyone," said Jessica Bonebright, who chairs the KCLS board.

Koenig, who spoke at the KCLS board meeting in Redmond and helped to organize the caravan of Islanders who attended it, said he was encouraged by the change in direction and the KCLS board's response to Vashon. Twenty Islanders spoke at the KCLS board meeting, 19 opposed to the move and one — Sontgerath — in favor of it.

"They were there for 60 minutes listening to testimony," Koenig said of the KCLS board. "Their eyes never glazed over. ... These people were listening."

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