Library board chooses Ober Park for new branch

In a unanimous vote last week, 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 last Tuesday night, 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 to the K2 site 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.”

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 Jean Bosch, Bonnie and Alan De Steiguer, Hilary Emmer, Martin Koenig, Alice Larson 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 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.

The decision essentially puts both the library system and the park district back to where they were a little more than two years ago, when library system officials said their best — and only — option was to remodel the existing library and keep it at Ober Park.

The discussions quickly grew acrimonious, however. Park district officials said at the time that library officials were unwilling to consider the impact a remodel could have on the park’s berms or other amenities. Ultimately, discussions fell apart, with both sides accusing the other of creating the impasse.

David Hackett, a park district commissioner who led the charge two years ago, said the situation is different now — even though, once again, both sides are discussing a remodel of the library at its current site.

Two years ago, he said, Bill Ptacek, the head of the library system, would pass off the park district’s concerns as “not our problem,” Hackett recalled.

“I’m hoping this will go a little differently,” Hackett said. “Obviously, Ptacek had total control over the board in 2007, and he doesn’t this time — or this decision wouldn’t have been made. We’re hopeful that fact will soften the negotiations.”

Collins, meanwhile, 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.”

Ptacek, for his part, said he’s never cared if the library was at K2 or Ober Park; he’s just looking for a place to build a new library. Funds for a new branch were approved by King County voters in September 2004.

“We’ve got one shot ... to really make a significant difference in the level of service this library system can provide ... That’s always been our focus,” he said.

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