King County library board selects Ober Park for new branch

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the King County Library System's board of trustees endorsed a plan to keep Vashon's branch library at its current location in Ober Park.

The trustees, at a board meeting in Des Moines, told library system officials they could spend up to $6 million to expand and renovate the existing library branch as long as they're able to obtain a lease from the Vashon Park District that extends until 2081. The park district owns the land the branch library sits on.

The decision to keep the library at Ober Park rather than move it a mile down the road was made in part, trustee Rob Spitzer told people at the meeting, because of Islanders' "tenacious participation" in the process "and their vociferous arguments and presentations of information."

"You all have put out a lot of time and a lot of effort," he told the dozen or so Islanders who attended the Des Moines' meeting. "One of the things that makes a community strong and great is when people can articulate themselves responsibly and deal with one another in a professional way, ... and I think overall that's happened."

Islanders applauded after the vote was taken. Several stood up to thank the trustees for listening to them during the long and sometimes heated debate over the library's location.

"It means a lot to many of us on Vashon," Islander May Gerstle told the trustees.

Noting Islanders are a "passionate" lot, she added, "We're not always in unity. ... But in this one, your decision reflects the hope and the will of the vast majority of Islanders on Vashon."

"We've got a lot of talent and time on the Island, sometimes too much time," Islander Greg Wessel told the board to laughter. "And we really want to help. Thanks for letting us help this time."

For the last several months, library system staff have advocated moving the branch to the K2 site, where Islanders Dick Sontgerath and Truman O'Brien are attempting an ambitious plan to transform the former ski-manufacturing site into a quasi-community center. The library, under Sontgerath and O'Brien's proposal, would have occupied a 10,000-square-foot former machine shop adjacent to K2's main structure.

O'Brien, however, said he was not terribly surprised nor disappointed by the library board's vote Tuesday. "Actually I'm glad they made a decision. Period," he said.

Asked how the decision will affect their development plans, O'Brien added, "We just have to go back to the drawing board and do a little re-evaluating. But it shouldn't be that significant. ... We're going to continue to march forward."

The trustees' decision follows months of work by a number of Islanders who organized a citizens' campaign to keep the library in town after the library system announced it was negotiating a purchase-and-sale agreement with Sontgerath and O'Brien.

The group — comprised of Martin Koenig, Alice Larson, Hilary Emmer, Jean Bosch, Bonnie and Alan De Steiguer and several others — organized an Island-wide survey, which found strong support for keeping the library in the town core. They also were able to get several people to attend the library system's board meetings. Dozens of people often turned out, some with small children in tow, others who read poems to the board or handed out books in an effort to make a statement.

"I think it's a clear example of how a community effort changed a decision that may have been different," said Mike Collins, who heads the Vashon Park District's board. "They truly responded to the passion people had to keep the library in town."

Bosch agreed.

"I think the board thought that one location was the same as another ... until people from here said, 'Wait a minute, these aren't comparable, and we have a strong preference.' And I think that caught them up short," Bosch said.

Collins said he's now ready to begin working with the library system staff on a new lease and a plan to move forward to expand and renovate the existing branch. However, he said, he would still like to see the library consider yet another option — building a new structure at the Ober Park site, a structure that would replace the park district's administration building, which is in disrepair.

Such a proposal has also been on the table, he noted.

"They've clearly selected Ober Park," he said of the library board. "What I'm hoping to do is engage in a dialogue with their staff to see if we can go to a new building alternative, which I think is a better alternative."

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