Effort launched to keep library at Ober Park

Commissioners for the Vashon Park District have decided to approach the King County Library System to see if they can convince the organization to keep the Vashon Library at Ober Park.

The commissioners made the decision at their retreat earlier this month. It comes after hearing from some community members that they’d hate to see the library leave the downtown core and go a mile south to the proposed K2 Commons, a redevelopment of the 180,000-square-foot former K2 manufacturing plant.

“The library belongs at Ober Park. It doesn’t belong next to an abandoned factory. It doesn’t belong out of town,” said Bill Ameling, a park district commissioner. “That said, it doesn’t mean the library system should have carte blanche to carve up the park to meet their needs.”

The Vashon Library — part of the King County Library System (KCLS) — has been located at Ober Park since 1982, a location that many parents and other users have enjoyed. Some patrons say they like being able to walk to the library when they’re in town doing other errands; and many parents say they’ve liked the tradition of letting their kids play at the playground either before or after a visit to the library.

As a result of a $172 million bond passed in 2004, the King County Library System set aside $4 million to build a new, 10,000-square-foot library on Vashon. Thus began a dance between the library system and the park district, which have been twined together under a somewhat complex arrangement: KCLS owns the library building at Ober Park, which is located on land owned by the park district and leased to KCLS.

Library and park district officials began discussing a new library at Ober Park in May 2005; the monthly update KCLS keeps on its Web site about the Vashon project noted that the initial meeting was “enthusiastically positive” and that discussions were underway about the library and the park district “cooperatively planning and sharing Ober Park.”

Last year, however, the situation began to fall apart when KCLS officials said its best-case scenario was to remodel the existing structure, adding 1,800 square feet to the 6,000-square-foot building and taking up a portion of the park’s berms in the process. Park district commissioners balked, saying such an approach did not give Vashon its promised 10,000-square-foot library; it would mean the library would likely be closed during the remodel; and it would destroy a portion of the berms, which form a kind of outdoor amphitheater that Islanders use and enjoy.

“We were open to further negotiations,” said David Hackett, who chairs the park district commission. “But they were trying to unilaterally impose a plan without sufficient community input.

“It ultimately just didn’t make any sense to do that, to destroy a portion of the park for such a small return,” he added.

As a result, the park district last spring sent the library system a letter saying that it would not renew its lease if KCLS were to proceed with a remodel. “We expected them to come back and have further negotiations,” Hackett said.

According to library officials, however, a remodel of the existing building was the only affordable option at Ober Park. Thus, said Kay Johnson, KCLS’s director of facilities development, after KCLS received the park district’s letter, library officials decided to begin looking elsewhere for a site.

Now, she said, they’re very interested in the K2 complex and the proposed redevelopment plan put forward by Dick Sontgerath and his partners last month. Library officials plan to take their consultants into the space later this year, she said, “and take a close, hard look at it.” But already, she said, the site seems promising.

“We’re pleased,” she said. “We think there’s a possibility to make it into a very nice facility.”

After discussing the issue at their Jan. 5 retreat, park district commissioners have decided to approach the library system again and see if they can re-open a discussion. Ameling will make the overture, the commissioners decided.

The library system has been “a hard organization to work with,” said Hackett, who last year was the primary contact with KCLS. “I’m hoping that someone with new eyes can work things out better with these folks.”

Sontgerath, meanwhile, said that he wants the library system to do what’s in the community’s best interest — even if that means it doesn’t move the Vashon branch to the K2 complex. The library system’s decision, one way or another, will have an impact on the K2 project, he said.

“But it isn’t a go or no-go decision,” said Sontgerath.