K2 could profoundly affect our town core

By Todd Pearson

For The Beachcomber

A visiting friend once told me that Vashon is “kind of a homely little town.” There may be some truth to that statement, but for those of us who live here, our town’s beauty lies not in its appearance, but in the cohesion and generosity of its citizens.

The innate insularity of the Island compels us to hang together and care for each other; if we don’t, who will? The importance of Vashon’s downtown to that ethic of Island unity was expressed in the 1994 Town Plan and implied again in the development of the Village Green. In each, the underlying theme is that the integrity of the town core is of vital importance to the health of our community.

Vashon’s self-reliance is built on the collective viability of its downtown businesses. We depend on them and the Island’s nonprofits for most of the goods and services we need, and they rely on us to support them. When one local business folds, the community may abruptly lose an entire business sector, as recently happened when NAPA Auto Parts closed its doors. Though other businesses may fill some of the gaps, one of the puzzle pieces has been lost to the detriment of the consumer and other related businesses. Vashon’s providers of goods and services form a thinly stretched web of interdependence crucial to our strength as a community.

It seems possible that the rezoning of the K2 property, approved last November by the King County Council, may eventually have a profound impact on Vashon’s town structure and growth beyond our town center.

We are already seeing evidence of that eventuality with the possibility that the library may move to the K2 site. The resulting void may not in itself lessen the stability of Vashon town, but it may provide a preview of challenges ahead to its primacy.

I wanted to know more about K2 Commons, so I called its developers, Dick Sontgerath and Truman O’Brien, who kindly agreed to show me the property. They are wildly enthusiastic about their project, earnestly believing that their primary purpose is to do good things for Vashon.

And there’s no question that K2 Commons, as currently construed, would provide some benefits to the Island. Indeed, I believe Dick and Truman are doing their best to balance their need to make the project commercially viable with the best interests of the community.

However, I found it impossible to walk through the enormous facility without thinking about its potential to change Vashon’s business landscape, regardless of their intentions.

My particular concern is the ownership model upon which K2 Commons is predicated. Dick and Truman told me the 16.5-acre K2 property will be owned by one individual. The proposed owner, an unnamed individual, will own 160,000 square feet of commercial real estate.

Depending on whom you ask, that is equivalent to at least the same number of square feet, and possibly half again as many, as currently exist in downtown Vashon. This person, benefactor or tyrant, will commandeer a space into which at least one Vashon town could easily be placed. It is entirely possible that the success of this owner, or another person to whom he may choose to sell the property, will engender more development between K2 and Vashon town.

Entrusting the stability of our business core, and thus the economic health of our community, to the judgment of one person holding such an asset does not seem to be in the community’s best interest. If and when the K2 Commons deal is signed, that owner, and those who manage it, will understandably do whatever they must to make it succeed. It is not hard to imagine that sometimes their best interests will run counter to those of the rest of the Island.

An early and excellent proof of the above assertion is Dick and Truman’s position on the location of the library. If the library is not moved to the K2 site, the K2 Commons project will not be viable. This may explain why, in the face of overwhelming community sentiment to keep the library in Vashon town, the K2 developers, two good men, have continued to insist that such a move would be a boon to the community. This could be the first in a series of positions taken by the K2 developers in which the interests of the community are neglected in service to their project’s success.

The K2 facility is not going anywhere, nor is it likely to revert to its old zoning designation. One way or another, it will be put to use, because its value is too great for it to remain empty.

The K2 Commons project may yet succeed, but if it does not, another owner and project will take its place. The next group, if it comes from the private sector, may be less sensitive to Vashon’s needs than Dick and Truman.

Change is a certainty at K2, but if Vashon residents act decisively, that can be a good thing. If this deal falls through, we, as a community, should take up the good work that Emma Amiad and friends began to convert this leviathan into a useful facility.

Vashon has a tremendous need to better house our nonprofits and public entities. Emma’s group would have used K2’s tremendous size to take care of all those needs, still leaving plenty of room for local small businesses or light manufacturing. Dick and Truman’s group can, of course, offer the same sort of mixed use, but with a key difference. K2 Commons is to be owned by one person. The people of Vashon need to control this massive building, simultaneously creating much-needed community space and answering for ourselves the questions of where and how growth happens on our Island.

— Todd Pearson is a professional photographer and long-time Islander.

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