I am going to ask you to care about a children's theater. You may think you don't care about community theater created by kids, but you do. Children's theaters inspire kids to use their imaginations while also teaching them teamwork, public-speaking skills, lying gracefully, and intergenerational and cross-class communications techniques. You need to practice all of that stuff in order to function at a high level as a citizen, employee, and human being, and you can learn all that stuff very thoroughly at a children's theater.
The particular children's theater I want you to care about isn't just any old children's theater. It's an educational creative powerhouse called Youth Theatre Northwest, and it's been operating on Mercer Island for more than 30 years. I haven't seen any of their productions personally, but people tell me that the theater the kids produce is actually kinda good. The production values are high, and the kids are super pumped about working with the teachers, many of whom are working artists themselves.
Youth Theatre Northwest has served thousands of children over the course of its existence, and lots of those kids have gone on to enrich Seattle's creative universe. It's even produced a television star or two.
You know Joel McHale from TV? He's a Youth Theatre Northwest alum, and in 2014 he returned to his stomping grounds to raise a bunch of money for them. You know Suzanne Morrison, the hilarious person who wrote Yoga Bitch? She told me that Youth Theatre Northwest was "the best part of [her] childhood." When she talked to me, she happened to be driving around Los Angeles with fellow YTN alum Kate Hess, who writes and performs her own shows and who was "nodding her head in agreement" as Morrison said, "Even if you didn't have any money, you could perform in [YTN's] plays and get great experience doing pretty much any theater job, from lights to sound to PR to directing to stage managing... and acting, of course."
You know Erin Brindley of Cafe Nordo? Megan Hill of Eater Seattle? Katy Sewall, the producer for KUOW's Weekday? Longtime Seattle musician Rob Witmer? The bartender I talked to at Redwood one night who also sometimes works at Lottie's and still writes music? All of them came up through Youth Theatre Northwest and count their time there as critical to their development as artists and as people. If you don't know any of the people I mentioned, I'm sure I could take a week and find a thousand more. Like I said, Youth Theatre Northwest has served thousands and thousands of kids.
One thing you might notice about that list is that all of those people have jobs in creative fields. They're still building stuff, writing stuff, helping people understand themselves, and entertaining the masses.
My personal experience confirms that theater is one of the few places where young weirdos and outcasts and art-types can go to escape the crushing boredom and the occasional violence of normie culture. Brindley, the theater artist with Cafe Nordo, said that normie culture is especially potent on Mercer Island: "The oppression of individuality and creative spirit that goes along with growing up in a very wealthy, high-expectation-of-conformity place like Mercer Island is considerable." She said that Youth Theatre Northwest gave her the opportunity to meet kids around the area who didn't grow up with that wealth, "which is something that kids from Mercer Island desperately need to experience."
Though Youth Theatre Northwest primarily serves kids on Mercer Island, Manuel Cawaling, the executive director for the theater, says their arts education projects extend beyond the island and into Seattle. They have outreach programs at the Boys & Girls Club in Rainier Vista and in White Center. They are the drama department for a few middle and elementary schools. They've got programs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. They do summer camps. They're all over the place. They're training Seattle kids, they're training Mercer Island kids, and the result is that, in the future, everybody gets a bunch of high-level creative people running around and being really great at parties and figuring out how to forge lives for themselves in the culture as adults.
The reason I need you to care about Youth Theatre Northwest is that the organization is in danger of having to close up shop or move off the island entirely, all thanks to the efforts of a group of park purists who call themselves—I swear to god—Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks.
These Concerned Citizens are prepared to stand by and watch Youth Theatre Northwest's demise because they perceive parks on Mercer Island to be under threat. Specifically, they believe the parks are under threat from city council overreach. You know how we have NIMBYs in Seattle? Well, these people are NIMPs—it stands for Not in My Park. NIMPs. Maddening NIMPs. Faux-fairies who have a park where their heart should be, and it's infuriating.
The whole story is a little complicated. In order to get that complication, we need to go deep into some Mercer Island City Council/nonprofit-viability talk. If you find any of it boring, too boring to read all the way through, well, just remember: You're the reason Donald Trump exists.
The first thing you need to know is that Youth Theatre Northwest needs a new home. In 1984, Youth Theatre Northwest began operating out of a former middle school on Mercer Island. Executive director Manuel Cawaling said the theater's auditorium was a former lunchroom. In the summer of 1998, Youth Theatre Northwest dropped $1.5 million to renovate a former middle school on Mercer Island. They created a relatively state-of-the-art theater with professional light rigging and a large stage. Having access to these professional assets is important—students feel more confident and invested in the work they're doing if that work looks good, and they're better trained to handle more commercial theatrical ventures after they graduate the program.
In 2010, the school district told YTN they had to move, but Cawaling says the district was vague about the timetable. They were looking at four years, maybe less. The schools were overcrowded, and the district needed to reclaim the building so that its students wouldn't have to go to class in trailer pods.
(Huh? Inadequate education funding at the root of another problem that affects a complex web of lives? You don't say!)
"I cannot completely articulate the craziness that the following four years brought as we tried to pursue a variety of options," Cawaling said. The community theater group tried to partner with two developers, explored purchasing the former Boys & Girls Club of Mercer Island, had conversations about a variety of different parcels of city-owned and privately-owned property, thought about a church at the south end of the island, spoke with a real-estate agent who did an inventory of all Mercer Island property, aaaaaaaaand: no bites.
Surprise: Land is limited and expensive on Mercer Island. Cawaling said he wasn't able to find a place for less than $6 million, and that locations they may have been able to afford, such as the church, presented permitting issues.
In 2013, the Mercer Island City Council recognized Youth Theatre Northwest's increasingly tenuous situation and created a task force to help in the search. Cawaling was on that committee, along with members of the city council. "They didn't home in on a piece of property very quickly," Cawaling said. "The city council was mindful of the fact that they were dealing with a precious resource, which was parkland... We came up with eight different options. We reviewed each of the different options based on the criteria for the theater, and by the summer of 2013, the committee came down to its final recommendation, which was to use the recycling center property" in Mercerdale Park.
But "using the recycling center property" is easier said than done.
Mercerdale Park is a 12-acre piece of property in the middle of Mercer Island. Off to one side of the park is an old, defunct recycling center. The recycling center is shrouded by trees because it's an ugly tin thing, and it's been there, empty, for years and years.
This recycling center is owned by Mercer Island School District No. 400, and in the 1970s it was making the district a fair amount of money. (Remember when you could make a few pennies for recycling something?) When the city switched to curbside recycling, people stopped making use of the recycling center, and so the district stopped operating it.
It was the district's responsibility to pay for the removal of the recycling center from Mercerdale Park when the district ceased to operate it, according to a statutory warranty deed signed in March of 1984. The school district still hasn't done that, and the city hasn't really been on their case about it, because who cares, it's an abandoned recycling center hidden by trees.
Mercerdale Park is a very suburban park completely surrounded by concrete and asphalt, and adjacent to a strip mall. The park's main feature is a 5.5-acre lawn that would comfortably support two games of flag football being played simultaneously. If you started at the modest pergola commemorating 20th century US war dead and walked counterclockwise along the sidewalk that loops around the lawn, you'd see the dumpy recycling center, a skate park, a few exercise-specific pieces of ENERGI Prime playground equipment (power step, angle bar), and playground equipment for children.
Across the street, you can fetch a prescription at the Rite Aid, pick up dry cleaning, take a class at the Defensive Driving School, get a picture framed, get a haircut, get a dog groomed, eat some pho (at the fabulously named Phobulous), or drop something off at the post office. The only thing you can't do in the immediate vicinity of Mercerdale Park is pick up your kid after his or her rehearsal of Searching for King Arthur. At least not yet.
Why does Youth Theatre Northwest need a new house so they can rehearse Searching for King Arthur anyway? And why do they have to build on this little acre of precious parkland, in place of the defunct recycling center?
Because in February 2014, while still searching and committee-meeting for their next home, Youth Theatre Northwest received their eviction notice from the school district. In response, they moved into the parish hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which is where they are now.
While the theater is grateful for the space, Cawaling said, the digs are too small. The orchestra has had to play in the church's chair closet. The church doesn't seat as many people as their old theater did, nor is it nearly as professional, and so the theater has had to turn people away. Youth Theatre Northwest estimates that they've lost $50,000 in revenue from ticket sales. And they can't serve as many kids as they used to.
Faced with the reality of having to establish an interim location, move quickly, and launch a capital campaign for a new building in a location to be determined—and all of this with only five people on staff (two administrative, three creative)—Youth Theatre Northwest realized they were in trouble. But they also realized that they weren't the only people who needed a creative home on Mercer Island.
So Youth Theatre Northwest got together with other arts organizations in the area (including Music Works Northwest, Musical Mind Studio, the Children's Dance Conservatory, the Mercer Island Visual Arts League, and the Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle) to form Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA). After they filed for nonprofit status, Youth Theatre Northwest transferred the option of the property to MICA's leadership, which was approved by the city council.
For a while, it looked like MICA would be the entity that saved Youth Theatre Northwest and made life easier for parents on Mercer Island who didn't want to drive over the bridge every time their kid had a rehearsal or an art thing they wanted to do.
There are architectural renderings of the building MICA wants to make, and it looks good. It houses a 300-seat theater, a smaller black box theater that opens onto Mercerdale Park's lawn, a recital room, and a couple classrooms. Several stories tall, it's a pretty and glowy white box that would, again, merely replace the recycling center no one is currently using. It's a bigger building than the recycling center, but it's not ugly, and the building isn't so big that it would encroach upon the park's precious green lawn.
MICA started up at the beginning of 2014, and within a year had raised an initial $300,000 followed up by $5 million—money that went into hiring an executive director, putting out a bid, doing ground studies, hiring a top-notch design team, and creating their plan for the building.
But, as I mentioned, there has been some resistance.
Last November, Mercer Island had a number of city council seats up for grabs. According to Youth Theatre Northwest's Cawaling, they wanted to sign the lease for MICA in Mercerdale Park before the election, but the council said no. The topic was too hot.
In early 2015, the group called Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks formed. They didn't want to see a building in Mercerdale Park, or in any parks for that matter. They didn't want to see anything in parks but what they believed was official park stuff, which is to say sports stuff. Park protection is huge for them. They even created a voter's guide for the city council election based on where candidates stood on issues of "park protection."
Almost all of the city council members who were up for reelection and who were sympathetic to MICA were reelected, Cawaling said—all but one of them. So, after trying to solidify a plan for a new home and after limping along, bleeding money in an interim space for a year, Youth Theatre Northwest felt as if they had caught a break: The sweeping reelection seemed like a mandate from the voters to build MICA in Mercerdale Park.
Ira Appelman and his Concerned Citizens disagree.
At the beginning of March of this year, the Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks drafted a petition called "PROTECT OUR PARKS / SAFEGUARD MERCER ISLAND'S LEGACY OF PARKLAND / SECURE OUR CHILDREN'S HERITAGE."
Its common name is Protect Our Parks, or (the perfectly paternal) POP.
The initiative calls for "all lands held now or in the future by the City of Mercer Island for park and recreation purposes, whether designated as park or open space, to be preserved for such use in the future unless certain conditions are met."
"Such use" refers to "park and recreation purposes," which, in the language of the initiative, expressly prohibits these things: "(a) community center, (b) performing arts center, (c) recycling center, (d) swimming pools, (e) housing, (f) city administrative offices, (g) parking garages, (h) transportation facilities, and (i) buildings larger than one thousand square feet."
But the following stuff is considered parkland use, and so is cool, according to Concerned Citizens: "(a) restrooms, (b) docks, (c) permanent play equipment, (d) playfields, (e) artificial turf, (f) forested areas, (g) and underground utilities."
Let's just take a second here and break down the ideology that this definition of park use embodies. For POP, a park is a place where sports happen. Our public and open park spaces are NOT a place for permanent structures that foster creative activity, but they ARE a place for permanent structures that foster physical activity. This kind of thinking, in effect, says that the arts are not important for a healthy community, despite the fact that pounds of evidence suggest exactly the opposite. It's not the baseball players who are going to be leading the economy of the future—it's the creative weirdos.
Also, here's a fun game: If you go to the website for the initiative, you'll see photos of open land with no people on it. Go to MICA's website, and you'll see photos of a whole community using the park for fun and togetherness. That right there tells you everything you need to know.
But anyway, according to the initiative from the park protectionists, if you did want to build, let's say, a performing arts center where children might find some escape from the madras grip of normies, you could. But first there are a number of hurdles you'd have to jump. The city council would be required to (a) hold "a public hearing regarding the necessity of the transaction," (b) enact an ordinance finding that "the transaction is necessary because there is no reasonable and practical alternative," and (c) receive land "of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the same vicinity, serving the same park purposes, in exchange."
Ira Appelman, the self-described leader of the Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks, insists that the initiative is not anti-MICA but pro-park.
Appelman claims to have personally attended and recorded nearly every Mercer Island City Council meeting for the last couple decades. He told me he "saved [Mercerdale Park] in 1997" when the fire department considered building a fire station there. He referred to the city council as "an elected oligarchy." He's a Mercer Island City Council watchdog, and he's very sure of his opinions.
Appelman sees the construction of MICA as just one more example of the city council thinking of Mercer Island parks as "free land." Despite the fact that the city has acquired, according to Mercer Island Parks & Recreation superintendent Paul West, more than 28.8 acres of parkland for Mercer Island over the last 30 years, Appelman believes Mercer Island's parks are under threat.
"There are numerous projects that have been strongly pushed by the city council for many of our parks, but islanders have always insisted that our parks are not 'free land' and that our parks must be protected," Appelman told me.
In addition to the aforementioned fire station controversy in 1997, he cited as evidence of city council overreach the 1969 vote to make Pioneer Park a golf course, the 1987 vote to build City Hall in its current location rather than in Mercerdale Park, the 2002 proposal to build workforce housing in upper Luther Burbank Park, the 2014 Sound Transit proposal to build a parking garage on Kite Hill that borders Luther Burbank Park, and a complex situation going on now in Clarke Beach involving a private property encroaching on public land.
Appelman also asserts that the city council "promised free land" to Youth Theatre Northwest, and he suspects that the theater group "did not seriously look" for other places to move their organization. He says they could have pushed the school district to build the company a theater at Islander Middle School or at Northwood Elementary. He also mentioned to me that the company could have perhaps built out the Boys & Girls Club of Mercer Island, or the backside of the Mercer Island Community & Event Center, which is confusing considering the fact that the community center is located in Luther Burbank Park, which is obviously part of the parkland he'd want to protect.
As for the cost of land on Mercer Island, Appelman says that if MICA can hope to raise $25 million, he's not sure why they couldn't raise another $6 million for land on top of that.
When asked why he was being such a hard-ass about building a place for art kids, Appelman said, "We have a problem with the building; we don't have a problem with arts." Though the current plans for the building's construction don't extend past the sidewalk or into the big lawn that composes the park part of Mercerdale Park, he worries that the plans will change.
Overall, Appelman claims that MICA is just one example "in a long line of projects proposed in the past and projects that will be proposed in the future" that threaten the sanctity of the parks.
If the Concerned Citizens can gather 2,600 signatures for their petition before May 30, then they can ensure that the decision to build MICA on parkland goes to a vote in November, which will basically force MICA to have to switch from fundraising mode into political-campaign mode, thus overextending their staff and reducing the possibility of the performing arts center being built.
"Signatures on the Initiative Petition help assure that ISLANDERS will decide next November whether, as with numerous times in the past, Islanders want to protect their parks or whether Island attitudes have changed and they are in agreement with the Mercer Island City Council distributing free parkland to any group that the City Council decides has a project the City Council wants to support," Appelman said in an e-mail to me.
Robynne Parkinson, a lawyer who volunteers for Support MI Parks and Arts, an opposition group that has sprung up to answer the claims of POP, takes several issues with the initiative and contends that many of Appelman's claims are flawed.
What's so wrong with putting the issue on the November ballot? From Parkinson's perspective: "It's an incredibly complex issue—where you lease land and how you lease land and whether the city can afford it—that's the kind of thing you don't want the public voting on. It's not an up-or-down-vote thing."
For Youth Theatre Northwest, switching from fundraising mode to campaign mode would mean a lot. "We had planned for 2016 to be a big year of fundraising for us," Cawaling said. "If we have to wait until November to count those votes, that's 10 months of the year where we are not an appealing donation. 'Donate to us, we might build an arts center!' There's nothing appealing about that."
The vote for the center, which Cawaling believes he'd win, would delay the completion of the project another full year at least, which would increase the amount of time Youth Theatre Northwest would have to spend in their interim space, which would increase the amount of money they'd lose every year and further strain the organization's efforts. "We should be focused on providing what children need. We have so much going on this summer—I can't imagine having to sit at QFC at a little card table begging for people to let us live in their community," he said.
Remember those three caveats to building anything on parkland? Parkinson says that the biggest problem with the initiative is the way those caveats are worded. The first caveat, which requires the city council to hold a meeting every time someone wants to lease parkland, seems fair but cumbersome. The second caveat, where the city has to prove that there is no alternative to building the performance center, is absurd. (Of course there is an alternative to building the performance center, or anything else for that matter. You can always NOT build something.) But the third caveat is the real kicker—the one where you'd have to swap the city some land "of equivalent or better size, value, location," etc. if you want to build.
"The type of land you can exchange it for is vague," Parkinson says. "Anybody can hold the city hostage because it doesn't meet their definition for what 'equivalent' land is." Moreover, for MICA to truly meet that third requirement, they'd have to find a piece of land that is in "the vicinity" of Mercerdale Park. "The only close one is a piece of land that costs $15 million," Parkinson said.
As for whether or not the parks of Mercer Island are under threat? "The things that Ira [Appelman] has been concerned about—most are decades old," Parkinson says.
Cawaling says that if MICA can't be built at the recycling center site, Youth Theatre Northwest will either leave Mercer Island or cease operations. "While we don't take this decision lightly, it's true," he said. "For the last five years, I have extensively researched our options on Mercer Island, and this is the only viable one. Additionally, we are tired by this long and exhausting fight. The continuing delays in moving the MICA project forward are making YTN's survival on Mercer Island increasingly tenuous."
When I asked a critic of Concerned Citizens if he agreed with my characterization of Appelman as a NIMP, he replied, "Though Ira's last name is Appelman, he's more of a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything)."
If my years of drama classes are any indication, and if the alumni are to be believed, youth theater also serves as a safe place for outcasts and art-types to gather and join forces and work with a shared sense of purpose to produce this sprawling collaboration called a "play." Cawaling said that Youth Theatre Northwest has definitely supported those kinds of kids, and when asked says that the organization "has been a really supportive home for queer-identified youth," adding that they want to be that "nurturing place for all youth."
Youth Theatre Northwest was certainly a nurturing place for Blake Charney, an alumnus I spoke to last week. "When I came to Mercer Island at the beginning of sixth grade, I was that awkwardly tall, gangly kid from another small town across the country, and I really struggled to fit in." Charney is a trans man, and he credits the teachers, staff, and students at Youth Theatre Northwest with creating an environment where he could feel comfortable with himself.
"I very vividly remember walking through the front doors and just getting this very warm, welcoming feeling from the building and its occupants. That feeling never went away, all the way up to my very last performance at Youth Theatre Northwest in 2012," Charney said. "Before YTN, I was scared to approach anyone, uncomfortable in my own skin, and never felt like I fit in anywhere. After YTN, I finally felt like I'd grown into myself, and I'd found my niche on the island." Charney told me that the idea of future generations of children not having the space and support he had to grow and learn—especially in middle and high school—terrified him.
We need more of these spaces—and Mercer Island needs at least one of these spaces—and more of that nurturing Cawaling was talking about. And we need it a lot more than we need an acre of land on which a defunct recycling center currently sits to go back to seed.
Appelman says he's "about on track to getting 3,000 [signatures] by May 30," which would give him a comfortable amount of support to put the POP initiative on the ballot. This is going to happen—unless you do something about it.
People who have already signed the petition but who were unaware that they'd also be killing the dreams of Mercer Island theater kids and massively disservicing Seattle theater and arts can find out how to unsign at this address: supportmiparksandarts.com.
Seattleites, who have no real say in what people on Mercer Island do, can only do what Seattleites do best: give money, or passive-aggressively troll these people. In large numbers. To give money, go here: mercerislandarts.nationbuilder.com/donate. To passive-aggressively troll these people, go to protectmiparks.org. Click the "Get Involved" tab, and get yourself involved. Write a little message to these people and let them know that they're not protecting parks, they're perpetuating an idea that unnaturally separates arts from parks and the body from the mind, and contributes to the poisonous divide in our culture that says the city's value rests in the prowess of its athleticism and not the sophistication of its creative institutions.