Mercer Island residents want a public vote in November to prevent the city from giving away parkland unless it’s replaced by nearby land of equal value and size. The initiative was filed right after the City Council agreed to donate an acre of park for a performing arts center.

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A neglected corner of Mercerdale Park on Mercer Island features an abandoned recycling center, a flagpole that appears to rise from an empty concrete wading pool and a small wooded area where teens using an adjacent skatepark had recently tossed beer bottles and a plastic takeout container.

Still, a city proposal to donate this one acre of a 31-acre park to a community group to build a $25 million performing-arts center has touched off a fight between residents who think the privately funded center would be a valuable addition to the island and those who don’t want any parkland given away.

Frustrated by the City Council’s refusal to put the issue to a public vote, the opponents have launched an initiative campaign that would require the city to replace any parkland sold, leased or changed to another use with land of equal value and size within the same vicinity. It also prohibits some specific uses in city parks, including performing-arts centers.

The measure, “Protect Our Parks,” needs about 2,600 signatures by June 2 to qualify for the November ballot. And since few residents are against parks, arts-center supporters say many people are signing the initiative without realizing it will delay, if not completely kill, efforts to build the Mercer Island Center for the Arts, or MICA.

Both sides have bought advertising inserts in the local newspaper. Initiative proponents are gathering signatures outside downtown grocery stores and at community meetings.

The MICA supporters, Support Mercer Island Parks and Arts, have taken the unusual step of publicizing how to legally withdraw a signature from an initiative petition, in case residents decide they signed it mistakenly.

“We’re worried that there is actual deception by signature gatherers about what the initiative would do,” said Councilmember Dan Grausz, who has urged residents to “Decline to Sign” the initiative.

The initiative campaign, Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks, has not reported any financial contributions to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Initiative opponents report contributions of $2,500 through Friday.

Taj Mahal syndrome?

Under the city’s draft agreement with MICA, the arts center must prove it has financing before building permits would be issued or a 50-year lease for the land takes effect.

Grausz and other supporters emphasize the arts center won’t impact any current use of the park, which is adjacent to the Town Center district and the site of many community events. He also points out that the city has added 100 acres of parkland in the last 30 years.

But initiative proponents say Mercer Island leaders have a long history of proposing non-park uses for the city’s parks and green spaces. They point to efforts starting in 1985 to build an expansive civic center at Mercerdale Park and, when residents rejected it, a fire station.

More recently, they note, the City Council proposed building workforce housing on a slice of Luther Burbank Park and a new park-and-ride garage on open space bordering the same park, both of which also met with community opposition and were abandoned.

“The City Council comes up with these plans and goes forward until the citizens stop them,” said Meg Lippert. “We’re saying, ‘If the city wants to build on a park, it has to replace it, so we don’t lose parkland.’ ”

The initiative is modeled on a Seattle initiative approved in 1997 that required that any parkland converted to a non-park use be replaced so that there was no net loss to the city. But critics note that the Mercer Island initiative adds a list of prohibited park uses, including community centers, performing arts centers, swimming pools and administrative offices, almost all of which can be found within various Seattle parks.

Ira Appelman, a longtime Mercer Island City Council critic who helped draft the initiative, admits to having had his picture taken as a boy on one of the camels outside what was then the Seattle Art Museum and is now the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

“It’s different here,” he said of Mercer Island. “We’re on a smaller scale than Seattle. We don’t build institutions in our parks.”

Appelman is also critical of what he sees as the city’s “Taj Mahal syndrome.” The 1985 civic center proposal for Mercerdale Park, for instance, grew to include a district court, a library, fire station, community center and a performing arts center, before a much smaller City Hall was built miles away.

He sees a parallel as the search for a new home for Mercer Island’s popular Youth Theatre Northwest morphed into a 24,000-square-foot building with a 300-seat theater, 100-seat recital studio, 100-seat theater lab, classrooms, music and dance studios, meeting and office space and a lobby exhibition area.

“Things that start small here build and build until they’re dropped,” Appelman said.

Island’s Youth Theatre

Youth Theatre Northwest, founded on the island 32 years ago, stages productions and offers classes to about 2,000 children a year. It lost its home on school-district property two years ago when the district reclaimed it for a new elementary school. The group is now trying to survive in temporary quarters in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, said John Gordon Hill, president and chairman of MICA and a former board member and director for the theater.

When the youth theater board realized it couldn’t raise enough money on its own for a new facility, Hill said, it expanded the vision to include other arts groups and more activities within a larger building.

“Mercer Island always had a lot of arts activities, but never a central place to put that together,” said Hill.

He said a phone survey done for MICA last fall found 60 percent of 420 registered voters supported the plan for a performing-arts center at the park. That went up to 73 percent among parents. The telephone poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Supporters of the arts center have raised $5 million, but Hill worries the initiative will delay fundraising, raise doubts in the minds of potential donors, drive up construction costs and threaten the very existence of the Youth Theatre on the island.

“At some point it’s not unreasonable to think Youth Theatre will look elsewhere,” he said.

Anna Gordon, president of the city’s farmers market and a MICA board member, said some market supporters initially shared initiative-backers’ concerns about how the new building would fit with the park and how it would impact the adjacent streets where the market runs on Sundays from June to October.

But she said they also saw how the market drew people to the Town Center and enlivened the park. An arts center, they decided, could extend that activity throughout the year. The farmers market would also gain the use of new public bathrooms, sinks and storage space in the new arts center, without any cost to the city, Gordon said.

The initiative campaign, she said, is about the larger issue of the city’s authority to add uses within a park.

“The fear of encroachment in any form becomes a rallying cry. The fact that this (arts center) would be a benefit to the community gets lost,” Gordon said.