Private use of public land

by KATIE METZGER,  Mercer Island Reporter Staff Writer

Many questions circle around the Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) and its current proposed location near Mercerdale Park, namely, if a private group should be able to lease public land.

But there are others as well. If it is built, how will it change the Town Center? If it isn't, what will happen to its potential tenants, notably Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN)?

Many Islanders argued both for and against the park location at the Aug. 3 City Council meeting. YTN students and alumni spoke and sang about the impact youth theater has had on their lives, and hoped that future generations would have the same experiences.

But a group of concerned citizens said that giving away park land could set a dangerous precedent. Last year, the Council contemplated building a parking lot on Luther Burbank Park’s “Kite Hill” and sold a piece of Clarke Beach to an encroaching neighbor.

Proposed MICA Site
MICA would be located in the upper left hand corner of this map and south of the Farmers Insurance building.
— Image Credit: MICA/Contributed Photo

Others mentioned that Mercerdale is not a reserve like Luther Burbank or Pioneer Park. It’s an urban park that is “at its best when it is filled with people,” said MICA President John Gordon Hill.

“There is no better site for MICA on the Island,” Hill said. “People who oppose MICA at this site are not saving Mercerdale Park. They are saving an abandoned recycling center.”

MICA looked at other locations on the Island, Hill said, including commercial sites in the Town Center, the old Boys and Girls Club site in East Seattle and several sites west of City Hall.

The recycling center site was recommended by a city task force in 2013.

“This location was very visible, contributed to the activity of the Town Center and reused a vacant site,” Hill said.

MICA architect Lesley Bain said that she has been studying the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces for years and wanted to make sure that the facility will enhance the park, not detract from it.

Manny Cawaling, YTN Executive Director, said YTN needs a home, and that parks and recreation are meant to go together. Recreation facilities in Green Lake, Seward Park and others “didn’t destroy the parks, but made them better,” he said.

Islander Erik Swenson said this issue is “big enough that it should go before the people,” asking for a public vote that educates people about the facility and the potential cost to the city.

“[MICA] is on the community’s agenda now, and it will have to be a community decision,” Councilmember Debbie Bertlin told the Reporter.

Hill said that “any budgetary shortfall will be the responsibility of MICA.”

“The city may choose to support MICA as a community amenity, but this is a choice not an obligation,” Hill said. “All maintenance for the facility remains the responsibility of MICA.”

Language in the proposed lease mentions benefits to the city: drainage improvements, storage space, public restrooms and preferential rates and dates to use the MICA facility.

But historical concerns linger. Voters have twice turned down proposals to build in Mercerdale Park: a civic center in 1986 and a fire station in 1997.

The topic has been discussed and debated on social media sites like NextDoor.

“The question many are struggling with is how did we get from a wonderful YT in an unused school to needing 38,000 square feet using public space without public input?” one poster asked.

Hill has posted responses to many questions, from parking capacity to the building’s footprint.

“MICA will be built entirely outside of the walking path that surrounds the lawn,” he said. “People may sit on the lawn for a few hours and watch an outdoor performance at MICA just like they do for Music in the Park, or Wooden O. We are not a private business, we are a non-profit charitable corporation founded by citizens of Mercer Island. We will be leasing the land from the city for consideration. We are raising money to build a beautiful art center as a gift to Mercer Island because we love the arts, education, and this community.”

MICA is planning on breaking ground in spring of 2017 with an opening mid-2018.

KATIE METZGER,  Mercer Island Reporter Staff Writer 
kmetzger@mi-reporter.com