WHAT ISLANDERS ARE SAYING
September 24, 2017
Dear Council Members:
My wife and I have been following arguments for and against the MICA proposal to build a performing arts center in Mercerdale Park for some time. While we both strongly believe in supporting the arts, we have a number of concerns about the proposal as it stands.
Public land, private use? We’re not aware of any other situation in which the city has allowed a private venture to use public, city-owned land for any project let alone a project of this size. If this is legal within the city’s charter, it’s certainly comes close to overstepping the bounds of that charter.
It not only sets a dangerous precedent, it also calls into question the council’s sense of both fairness and what is morally right. MICA’s intent—to save Youth Theater Northwest and provide it a permanent home—is an admirable one. However, when YTN lost its lease on the North Campus, owned by the MI School District, six other charitable organizations providing benefits to the community also were displaced. Did the city offer to find any of them a home on city-owned land? So, why is the city now offering to give one of the displaced organizations what amounts to rent of $1.00 per year for fifty years (as long as someone else puts up the money for a building, of course)?
Cost. When a group like MICA comes along and offers to construct a $15 million dollar facility to benefit the community, the temptation to jump on the offer is strong. But the council needs to look at the long-term cost and viability of the project. MICA has stated that Youth Theater Northwest will be its primary tenant, essentially paying the principal operating costs. YTN’s financial history, however, has left it near the brink of insolvency several times. The city, in fact, bailed YTN out in 2009 with a $20,000 grant—taxpayers’ money. In 2013, YTN even refused to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau. (We won’t even go into the arrest and conviction of a YTN director for sex crimes.) For all the good YTN has done for its attendees, it has a checkered history of success.
A major question for us—and for you—is what happens if MICA falls into insolvency? What if YTN can’t pay its rent? How does MICA come up with the operating budget to keep a performing arts center open? Bellevue Youth Theater, which is owned and operated by the city of Bellevue, incurs a cost of between $290,000 and $388,000 annually on staff salaries alone. Add in operating costs of utilities, maintenance, production supplies, etc., not to mention cost of benefits for employees, and the total operating budget is obviously much higher. If MICA’s primary tenant pays $32,000 per month, that would almost cover the high end of staff salaries, assuming BYT and the MI Performing Arts Center operate in much the same way, but none of the hard costs to maintain the building.
Mercer Island, however, is not Bellevue. Bellevue is six times our size, giving an operation like BYT a much larger population to draw from. It’s also not an island. M.I. is not a destination location; people don’t come here from off island to shop or eat in restaurants, or for entertainment. The arts center will have to draw on the local population to survive, but will that be enough? And if MICA can’t come up with operating costs, what then? The center will be built on city land. Will the city become the owner of the building in the event MICA can’t continue to operate it? If so, where will the city come up with the funds to operate the center? A taxpayer levy?
Our point is that the city (you, as council members) should view this project in much the same way as the MICC rebuild of several years ago—a community-approved, taxpayer-funded project. Despite MICA’s assurances, it’s not out the realm of possibility that this center will turn out to be taxpayer-funded even though we didn’t have the chance to vote on it.
Size. With the central business district already becoming overwhelmed with large, generic mixed-use developments, the proposed art center would impose a huge presence in what has been an open, relatively unspoiled public space. One of the many reasons people move to MI is its almost rural feel in an urban/suburban environment. The foresight to preserve large tracts of land such as Pioneer Park and the Mercerdale Hillside is what has created the island’s character in the face of unceasing development. Instead of a view of the natural Mercerdale Hillside, most of the west side of the park would be dominated by the proposed performing arts center façade.
Parking. MICA will provide no parking with the proposed variance the city may allow. There is no parking available for the center in the downtown area. For MICA—and you—to assume that Farmers Insurance will continues its largesse and offer its lot for MICA or YTN productions (and only on nights and weekends) is folly. And without on-site parking, traffic around the center and the park during shows will likely require the city to staff additional MIPD personnel as it does for parades and other special events. (Yet another expense—have you planned for it?)
Encroachments. The proposed building’s requirement for a fire lane takes up a much larger percentage of usable parkland than the present walking path and creates more impervious surface that cannot absorb rainfall. The huge water retention tank necessary to mitigate the effects of losing the native plant garden and some wetland is outside the boundaries of the property under proposed lease to MICA. Does that mean it’s the city’s responsibility? At what cost? The destruction of natural habitat to accommodate the massive footprint of the center goes against every principal we hold dear for this community and for the world at large in this day and age. We shouldn’t let “progress” always dictate, even when it appears that someone else will be paying for the shiny building.
Alcohol. Providing a variance allowing the center to serve alcohol and/or allowing alcohol consumption on the property when alcohol is not allowed in city parks sets both a bad example for the community and our children and a terrible precedent for the city.
Every variance you allow for this project to proceed as envisioned in its current location sets a dangerous precedent. To outside observers, judging from how this project is portrayed in the local media and how approval has been confined to council decisions and not a community vote, suggests that your judgment has been swayed by the deep pockets of the people behind this special interest. (Last week’s Reporter, for example, gave the city’s approval of SEPA a front page story while relegating the dissenting group’s protest day in the park to a sidebar.)
If the community truly wants and needs a performing arts center, then put it to a community vote, and plan and build it with transparency. If MICA wants to build a private venture offering performing arts to the community here on MI, then let it find and purchase land and build on its own, or buy and build out an existing structure on the island as the other six organizations displaced by MISD have. The city and taxpayers didn’t give a break to Country Village Day School, CHILD and others; they had to find space and pay market rates and build-out costs.
The community was hoodwinked into believing the levy to rebuild the high school included a performing arts center in the package that would be available for community, not just MISD, use. Please don’t allow yourselves into believing that this “public-private” partnership with MICA is what it appears on its face. The way it’s structured now, taxpayers are on the hook for it if it doesn’t work out as planned, and the city will have little or no say in how it’s operated.
On its surface, MICA’s proposal may look like a win-win situation for the city and performing arts groups like YTN that would like a permanent home. As our representatives, however, you must approach this project as if voters had entrusted you with constructing a city-owned and -operated center. Would you locate a performing arts center in Mercerdale Park? Or would it make more sense on other city land, such as near the community center where there is more parking available and less encroachment on parkland and natural habitat? Would you ensure that you had an adequate operating budget to maintain the building whether it was used to its full potential or not?
We honestly believe that despite the fact that we, as taxpayers, are not directly funding this project, because the council wants to grant public land for it, you have a responsibility to put this proposal to a community vote at the very least.
Michael W. Sherer
"Just a reminder that I am still out here bemoaning even the thought of you allowing/promoting the taking of/encroaching on cherished and rare parkland, especially located conveniently for seniors, and hope against hope that you will find a way to locate YTN at a more desirable spot."
-Fran Call, a Mercer Island Citizen of the Year
"When I first found out about MICA in Mercerdale some years ago I was so disheartened and I thought I was the only one who would be against it. I am so happy to see this grass roots movement of good people working to save the park. Thank you so very much."
"While some cities are buying new parkland, our Mercer Island City Council members have pledged to give our precious public parkland away — to a private group — so they can plunk down a huge building, with a projected deficit of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for 50-80 years. Furthermore, our City Council made this decision without a vote of the people who own the property — Mercer Island citizens.
…The parkland our City Council agreed to give away includes a beautiful, shaded native garden with its own walking trails, at least 31 species of native plants and other natural attractions. These include a wetland, a solidly constructed Recycling Center that the City Council pledged in 2010 to preserve and re-purpose for community needs and historic Bicentennial Park — funded, designed and built by Islanders over four decades (two generations) ago to commemorate our country’s bicentennial.
The irony is that land is available on Mercer Island — in our Town Center as well as elsewhere — for sale. This land could be purchased by the private group so that the entire community would benefit, not only by saving our public parkland for future generations, but also by bringing together our divided community.
Land once given away is lost forever. Parkland saved for us and passed on to us by former citizens is not given to us for destruction, but is loaned to us to preserve for our children."
"The deal made by our council to replace beautiful parkland and open space near our downtown area with more concrete, mortar, steel, wood and pavement, serious parking issues, traffic congestion and crowding, all for a sum of $1 per year for a lifetime is thoughtless and reeks of special interest motives.
Mercer Island’s open spaces, flora, waterfront and parklands are what make our community a special place to live. The lure of living here is not because of buildings.
Does the community want the NW Theater and the other Arts to be part of the Mercer Island culture? Of course. Just not at the expense of losing our parklands. And for $1 per year – that has to be a fantasy.
Here is the negative truth:
- Beautiful parklands - gone.
- No transparency by our leadership. No vote of the people.
- Serious intimidation tactics used by advocates, including some council members, to silence opponents and to try and prevent a citizen vote.
- A give-a way to private interests at a ridiculous fee of $1 per year.
- Creation of serious parking and traffic problems, with no viable solutions addressed."
-Ed (Coach) & Shirley Pepple
"Any loss of millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable public property (“rented” for $1 per year) to a private developer, is a very serious business. No matter how noble sounding the espoused motive may be, such a significant uncompensated transfer of public assets, from public to private hands, should require the informed consent of those citizens whose property is being seized. We are not trading this property for a public facility, like the Community Center or the Mercerdale Thrift Shop, which we own together, and we operate entirely in the public interest. We are simply surrendering custody of a pubic park and hoping for the best."
"Taxpaying Islanders will have to pay for the deficits (in addition to the $300,000-$600,000 taxpayers are already paying for Mercer Island Community Center annual deficits) if MICA cannot meet its projected $800,000 annual operating expenses. (Arts Centers nationwide are having trouble meeting their expenses.)"
"Mercerdale Park is not New York’s huge Central Park. It is a precious, tiny gem of green relief in an increasingly dense Island center. MICA can seek other Island locations. But Mercerdale cannot. Let’s adhere to the 1998 Master Plan and “Retain publicly-owned parks and open spaces in perpetuity.”"
"Having worked at nonprofits my entire career and now running one, getting funds to build (i.e. capital campaigns) is actually pretty easy. Many grantees and funders like to have a building they can point to. However, the organization I work for is currently renting space from one of Seattle's oldest and most established nonprofits because they built a building and lost funding for operations. MICA is a huge commitment for this community and the entire community should have a chance to vote. That's our democratic process."
"The question of leasing public park land for a $1/yr. to a private, non-profit group, so that group can construct a building with a footprint over 10 times the size of the Recycling Center on it, is a question that our entire community should be engaged in deciding."
"Another huge problem in the proposed MICA plan is their complete lack of on-site parking. Virtually all of the neighboring businesses and shopping centers have said NO TO ALL EVENT PARKING. The lack of CBD parking already creates congestion and pedestrian safety issues; it doesn't seem appropriate to add to this problem."
"The City is considering giving a private developer, MICA, the ability to operate a large-scale business in Mercerdale Park that will not require them to provide on-site parking or pay market-rate rents. These advantages have not been afforded to others. Indeed, with these advantages, a proposed café/restaurant in this complex should be able to undercut tax-paying small business owners, and potentially drive them out of business."
"I love the arts. And I love Youth Theater Northwest. But I want to know why a private organization is using public land for its building. It doesn’t seem right to me."
"MICA has not provided any parking solution. It doesn't sound very community-minded and their proposed (and changing) plans continue to negatively impact our precious Mercerdale Park and surrounding area."
"I wonder what hold MICA has over the City Council. Our elected representatives continue to linger over making a decision that is not financially viable for a community. We’re a community that is already broke & having to raise taxes to support current debts rather than paying for upgrading necessary infrastructure."
"Mercerdale Park is publicly owned land which cannot be replaced. The children and youth of Mercer Island need to experience a wonderful and joyous park as part of their growing up. All children on MI do not have gardens/yards to play in, children living in the apartments in downtown MI in particular. And the many retired residents living downtown also need the park. It is a great place for interaction for multi generations of residents. Mercerdale Park needs to be kept as a park. Once it is gone, it is gone forever. "
"Upon receiving MICA’s 2016 Annual Report in the mail recently, I was struck that in this otherwise detailed brochure, there was no mention of MICA’s plan to construct a building the approximate length of an NFL football field (100 yards) in Mercerdale Park. Was this simply an oversight or a willful lack of transparency on MICA’s part? It’s not surprising that many Islanders still believe MICA’s proposed building will be the same size as the former recycling center. When they understand that it will be significantly larger, they are surprised and, to a person, oppose the plan."
"Maybe the footprint for MICA should be staked out in Mercerdale and balloons be attached showing the height of the proposed structure. I'm pretty sure that the building will obstruct almost all of the view of the green belt which gives Mercerdale it's character."
"A Green Vision for Town Center
In a recent issue of the Seattle Times, Marilyn Smith, a retired lawyer and former Seattle School Member posed this poignant question concerning the status of Seattle in its development as a major city: “As Seattle booms, where is the vision to keep it special?” That’s a question Mercer Island should ponder for itself. Smith states:” The views available to people walking, riding, and sitting are disappearing.” In Mercer Island’s conflict of people and buildings with the natural environment, the environment will lose, as will the quality of the lives of the people who use and live within these buildings. An equitable balance of the natural and the man-made environments should be sought by our City Council. There are design firms available to develop solutions to such problems. Commitment has to come from the communities themselves. How VISIONary is our City Council? Isn’t a long term comprehensive plan of balancing green space with city development important for making our city SPECIAL for its citizens?"
" The Native Garden in Mercerdale Park, located south of the Recycling Center and north of the Skate Park, provides a unique experience downtown of a woodland and wetland easily accessible to the public and is not on a hillside. It could easily be ADA accessible. Its current condition, in part, is because it has not been maintained by the City. It could be significantly improved to include many native wetland species and replacement of weeds with native ground covers and herbaceous plants, and as such could be a valuable, easily accessible educational and recreational resource for Mercer Island schools and citizens.