Image: Mike Kane

Stuart Avery came prepared.

“I didn’t know what you might want to see, so I brought everything.” Everything, in this case, refers to a white, coffee-table-book-size cardboard box overflowing with yellowed copies of the Renton Reporter newspaper, letters threatening lawsuits, a manual outlining the initiative process in Washington state, photocopies of newspaper clippings from the 1960s, printouts of emails sent by Renton municipal employees, and on and on and on. Pick up the box and it feels…heavy. No, weighty. Because not only is it so loaded with papers that it’s difficult to hold with one hand, but it also represents four years of Avery’s life. Through its haphazard organization the box chronicles his evolution from just another nine-to-fiver to a hyperinvolved citizen. All of which makes the box’s contents that much more surprising: Every document is related—some directly, some tangentially—to the Renton public library.

It’s 7pm on a Tuesday in early September, and Avery is sitting in a booth at the Yankee Grill, a high-ceilinged and otherwise nondescript restaurant attached to a hotel in southwest Renton. The other patrons, most of whom are drinking beer and watching sports highlights on the TVs above the bar, appear to be winding down. Avery, on the other hand, won’t go to bed for hours. Talking about his involvement in a four-year, community-wide effort to save the Renton library—he calls it a saga—amps him up. It is, after all, the issue that inspired him to run for a spot on the Renton City Council this fall.

Avery has lived in Renton for almost 20 years, and until the spring of 2010 he was your average uninvolved citizen who left the business of running a city to those who cared. “I figured that if you don’t have riots or protests in the street, everything must be great,” he says. But then this business with the library started, and he went to a few city council meetings. “And I started to see that it wasn’t really about what the people wanted. It was about what the city wanted.”

Avery doesn’t say things like “over my dead body”; he’s too soft-spoken and genial. But he doesn’t have to either. That box, the nights he sparred with city administrators when he should have been mowing his lawn or working on the car in his driveway, the hours he spent gathering signatures in the rain, they say it for him.

“So,” he says, looking at that box of paper that sits in front of him. “What can I give you to take home?” 

 

Renton, population 95,000 and change, has two libraries. The Highlands library is located in the northeast corner of the city. Built in 1973 for $176,000, it sits just blocks from Sunset Boulevard, which is studded with pharmacies, burger joints, and gold buyers. 

This story is not about that building. It’s about the one that abuts Liberty Park, which is also known to most as the Cedar River library. Or, simply, the Renton library—because when most Renton residents talk about a library, it’s this one. Opened in 1966, it replaced Renton’s first public library, a creaky, cramped little structure built 52 years earlier. The opening of the new library was cause for celebration. Winifred Daniels, the longest-tenured librarian of the former location, was there, as well as Florence Guitteau Storey, who’d been issued the first Renton library card in 1914. Flashbulbs popped and more than a thousand people watched as eight-year-old Laurie Renton, the great-grandniece of one of two men who brought the railroad to the area south of Lake Washington in the late 1800s, cut a gold ribbon held steady by mayor Donald Custer.

When Stuart Avery and Beth Asher got involved in saving the Renton library, they were just two ordinary citizens, living ordinary lives. Now they’re running for city council seats.

Image: Mike Kane

The celebration had a decidedly out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new vibe; Daniels had told the local paper, The Record-Chronicle, that the previous library couldn’t “be torn down too soon to suit me.” But even more than that the revelers were in awe of what stood before them. All 22,000 square feet of the library sat on a bridge above the Cedar River. Visitors approaching from the parking lot to the southwest or from Liberty Park to the northeast crossed to the midpoint of the bridge to enter, and when they came back out, books under their arms, they could stand at the railing and watch salmon slip through the water down below. 

The building itself wasn’t especially attractive. Pick it up and place it anywhere on dry land and it would be just another underwhelming, blocky, midcentury-modern municipal box. But it wasn’t on dry land, which made it rare among buildings worldwide. At the time only two other such structures existed: the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, and the Rialto Bridge, in Venice. Both held shops, and both were built centuries earlier.

Not much has changed since then. Renton’s river-spanning library is still the only one of its kind, and it is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same building that Laurie Renton stood in front of 47 years ago. Which is a good thing if you’re a strict preservationist, but not if you’re in search of a modern, functioning library. The concrete facade is weathered, the carpet is thinning, and the gold wallpaper above the checkout desk looks to be original. The plumbing leaks. The HVAC system is failing. In other words, it’s in desperate need of an update. And it has been for years. 

And yet the library still has ardent fans. In the mid-’70s Beth Asher and her husband were living on a blueberry farm in Kent when its owner decided to sell. They had to move and, while looking for a new home, they drove through Renton, wound their way downtown, and then…there it was. “Look at this,” Asher exclaimed. “It’s a library. And it’s over a river! This would be a perfect place to raise kids.” They settled there and never left. Today, with Avery, she’s led the contingent fighting for the library’s future. Would she speak out at city council meetings and lead signature-gathering campaigns for any other Renton institutions? “No. They could raze city hall tomorrow and I wouldn’t care.”

In early 2008, when the City of Renton published its 86-page Library Master Plan, laying out a road map for improvements, money for updates was nonexistent. The city was spending $2 million a year to staff and maintain its two libraries and another couple hundred thousand dollars so its citizens could also use branches of the King County Library System. And as the economy tightened and other city services took priority, even that money was drying up. Librarian layoffs were looming; talks of reduced hours had begun. “And at that time,” says Renton mayor Denis Law, “the alternative was to consider allowing the citizens to decide whether having a better level of service was something they wanted and could receive through KCLS.”

The King County Library System is enormous. It consists of 48 branches that blanket Western Washington from Shoreline to Enumclaw. Nine more are under construction, and five others are currently in the planning phase. And the construction or renovation of many of those buildings was made possible by $67 million and $172 million bond measures approved by King County voters in 1988 and 2004, respectively. All told, those libraries house more than 4.3 million items, from paper books to ebooks, movies to CDs. And if, say, Nicholas Sparks’s latest heartrending romance isn’t at your local KCLS branch, it can be shipped from another location within a day or two. Thanks to that efficiency, between 2010 and 2012, KCLS patrons checked out an average of 22 million items per year, making it one of the busiest library systems in the United States. 

Much of that growth has taken place under the watch of Bill Ptacek. The King County Library System was established in 1942—back then it was called the King County Rural Library District—to provide service to the county’s more sparsely populated areas. And it did so by either building libraries where none existed before or by taking over previously existing ones. The latter is known as annexation, and it has defined Ptacek’s tenure. Since he became director in 1989, KCLS has annexed more than 30 cities, and virtually all of those joined the system in the first decade of his reign.

At first blush, annexation is an attractive option. By getting out of the book-lending business, a city gets to save money. And in most cases citizens get a shiny new library. Of course, they have to pay for it: As an independent taxing entity, KCLS can assess property taxes to fund construction and maintenance of its branches.

And so it was in Renton in 2008 that Mayor Law and members of the city council began kicking around the idea of annexing to KCLS. Yet the city would have to mount a strong PR campaign. Its own Library Master Plan—written by an independent consultant—recommended remaining independent: “Joining the King County Library System would mean loss of local control…loss of services tailored specifically for Renton, and probable higher costs per taxpayer.”

In other words, the benefits of being integrated into such a huge, well-oiled machine would come at a price. Renton’s libraries would be part of a “cluster” of branches that included Fairwood and Newcastle, and its librarians would be dispersed throughout the cluster. It’s not for nothing that David Keyes, another vocal library supporter, compares KCLS to the Borg—an alien race from Star Trek that consumes and assimilates whole civilizations. Joining the system necessitates giving up some of the character that makes a library unique. Even Ptacek, in describing KCLS’s library design methods, talks of creating an “experience” that feels familiar in each branch. And when discussing how patrons benefit from that approach, he’s prone to calling them “customers.”

The idea of annexation refused to die, though, and on February 9, 2010, Renton residents voted on Proposition No. 1 to settle the issue. The vast majority of prior annexation votes throughout King County had been embarrassingly lopsided; it was rare for less than 60 percent of voters to approve the move, and in many cases upwards of 90 percent favored it. But once the ballots were tallied in Renton—a process that ultimately took two weeks—only 50.21 percent of the city’s residents voted yes. Annexation passed by just 53 votes.

 

 

KCLS’s presence in renton was felt almost immediately. New furniture, more computers, access to ebooks, longer hours—patrons were treated to several new services in spring 2010. But it would be more than a year before the biggest effect of the vote would galvanize the community.

Stuart Avery paid the minimum amount of attention to the city’s annexation push and the resulting vote. What little he knew he learned from his wife, Shannon, who had campaigned hard against joining KCLS. The city’s administration had positioned annexation as a cost-cutting move, but the truth was that only the city would save money. Taxes would, in fact, climb—partly because they had to pay for KCLS’s services and partly because Renton had agreed to foot the bill for two brand-new libraries. The hike would only amount to a couple hundred dollars per family, but in a down economy that was a couple hundred dollars that many couldn’t afford. For others, it was the principle of the thing. “The hypocrisy of that spin was what really angered me and got me interested,” Avery says. “What else weren’t they telling us or sugarcoating so that everybody would be happy?”

Image: Mike Kane

He—and everyone else in Renton—would find out in the second half of 2010, when the city began analyzing alternative sites for both of its libraries. Nothing was set in stone, but there was a very real possibility that the library over the river would be, if not razed, converted into something other than a library, while a new one would be built in downtown Renton. For those who believed the Cedar River library had evolved to be something more than just a place to check out books, that was (sorry) a bridge too far. In their eyes moving it downtown was tantamount to stealing away the heart of the city; making it worse was the fact that many of those who voted for annexation had no idea that they’d actually, in a sense, given the city license to do it. They felt, as city council member and library supporter Marcie Palmer puts it, “snookered.” And they began jamming city council meetings to make that clear. Before the annexation vote, “People were thinking, ‘Well, we want to save our Cedar River library. The city says we’re going to lose it if we don’t annex, so let’s annex to save the library,’ ” Avery says. “The shocker is that, after the annexation, the council immediately began moving to plan the relocation. And that’s what woke up a lot of these voters to say, ‘Whoa, I voted to annex to save our library.’ ”

In fact, the city had been discussing moving the library for more than a year. In July 2009—seven months before the vote—Mayor Law and Bill Ptacek signed a contract that laid out what would happen in the event of annexation, and it made both sides’ intentions clear: “The City and KCLS agree to develop and construct replacement facilities for both the Main and Highlands Libraries on other properties within the City to be acquired and donated by the City.” And the voter pamphlet mailed out with ballots explained that a yes vote would authorize the city to build “two replacement library facilities” with taxpayer money. Yet ironically, given what a monumental change it would be to move the library away from the river, very little was made of the possibility before the vote. A flier stuffed into residents’ December utility bills focused mainly on the financial repercussions of joining KCLS—which, incidentally, were later proven to have overestimated the cost of staying independent—while only making passing reference to new facilities.

Marcie Palmer has served on the Renton City Council since 2004. She opposed annexation from the beginning and she even helped lead the campaign against it in late 2009. But she was also aware of the plan to shutter the library over the river and believes that at the very least the rest of the city administration willfully downplayed it. “The administration will tell you that it was clearly stated in that flier, but it was buried,” she says. “That’s why people feel snookered. And because of that, here we are, three years later, and there is so much distrust in this town for the city government.”

Here’s where things get sticky. Mayor Law acknowledges that the possibility of moving the library wasn’t adequately communicated to the public prior to the February 2010 vote. “We should have made a big deal [about that] in the beginning and engaged the public,” he says. “If we could turn back the clock, I would clearly do that differently.” But he seems to take no credit for coming up with the idea to relocate the library. “When we were going through the process with KCLS to figure out where we were going to build the two new libraries, KCLS made it clear that over the river was not their preferred site for a couple reasons.” For one, he says the original location was too out of the way, and the library system preferred a more accessible space in Renton’s downtown core, close to the Metro transit center. For another thing, building (or rebuilding) over the river would be a logistical—not to mention permitting—nightmare. 

On the other hand, Ptacek says the decision was almost entirely the city’s. KCLS conducted a site analysis and made suggestions as to where a new library should go but, according to him, because Renton was footing the bill, KCLS “played second fiddle” through the entirety of the siting process. 

Ptacek punctuates discussions of the Renton library with the deep sighs, light chuckles, and general exasperation—and, at times, dismissiveness—of someone who’s been there and done that before. And he has. KCLS has met opposition in White Center, Duvall, Mercer Island, Newcastle…the list goes on. “I mean, in Richmond Beach we had 10 years of litigation,” he says with a wave of the hand. “You think Renton was tough. That was tough.”

Indeed, if litigation is the benchmark for a contentious library transition, then the controversy surrounding the Cedar River library wasn’t that contentious. (Ptacek won’t even call it a controversy. “You’d love to make this about us versus them,” he says when asked at what point he realized he had a fight on his hands in Renton.) But it’s interesting that he brings up the topic of litigation at all. Because it was Ptacek who first threatened legal action when things started going sideways down by the river.

 

In nearly 25 years as the director of KCLS, Bill Ptacek has overseen the construction or renovation of more than 30 libraries. Renton’s wasn’t the most controversial, but it wasn’t far off.

Image: Mike Kane

By summer 2011, the closure of the Cedar River library seemed to be a fait accompli. On June 20, despite the strenuous objections of residents like Stuart Avery and Beth Asher—and, it bears noting, three council members including Marcie Palmer—the city agreed to fund two new libraries, one of which would be built downtown in a structure that had once housed a sporting goods store. The library over the river would be converted to…something else, although its ultimate fate had yet to be decided. Residents continued to speak out against the move at council meetings, but their objections were met with polite stonewalling. “The whole time, the city was saying, ‘It’s a done deal. Why are you wasting your time on this?’ ” Avery says. “That was the thing that fired me up.”

Avery and Asher met at one of those meetings and agreed that they couldn’t give up. They believed that even though they were only two voices, they represented a much more widely held belief that the library was worth saving.

Like anyone else who’s read The Seattle Times or watched local news in the last decade, Avery and Asher had heard of Tim Eyman and his love of the initiative process. They didn’t necessarily agree with his politics (“I think he’s a putz,” Avery says), but he’d demonstrated the power one person can have to effect change in local government. The only problem was, they had no idea how to go about launching an initiative campaign. Avery researched the topic online, but it wasn’t until he got an assist from the League of Women Voters, in the form of a link to the Initiative and Referendum Guide for Washington City and Charter Counties, that things began to click. “And I determined that based on what we wanted to accomplish”—in short, allow voters to voice their opinion on the location of the new library—“we had a chance,” he says.

That September, they began collecting the 6,375 signatures of registered voters that they’d need to put the initiative on the August 2012 ballot. They had five months. Volunteers camped outside of the Target on Landing Way. They set up card tables at the Safeway on Third Street. Asher would leave her job in Issaquah at 5 on the dot and go straight to Target, where she’d stay until it closed. “I would get there at 5:45, because I drove like a bat out of hell,” she says.

On February 7, Avery submitted the last batch of signatures, bringing their total to 7,263, well above the required number. Then he, Asher, and the rest of the small army they’d recruited, waited. And waited, until March 2, when they learned that nearly a third of the signatures couldn’t be verified. They had just ten days to make up the difference, which they did in a massive weekend effort they called Super Saturday. By the end of March, the initiative had been certified by the King County Department of Elections.

 

 

As city council meetings go, the one that took place in Renton’s city hall on April 2, 2012, was a fiery one. For starters, it lasted three hours, thanks to public comments from nearly 20 angry residents. But it was the content of their comments that set the combative tone. They spoke of disenfranchisement and civil rights and free speech. They invoked the story of David and Goliath. And they threatened to pool their money to slap the city with a lawsuit. “I’m going to actually forgo getting new tires on my 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee to help contribute my portion of legal expenses to try and do what the citizens of Renton have asked you to do today,” one of them, a man named Mark Martinez, explained from the podium.

What the citizens had asked for, by virtue of signing Avery and Asher’s petition, was the right to decide whether to rebuild the library over the river or move it to the site of the old sporting goods store downtown. They’d even enlisted Tim Eyman’s attorney—to the tune of $1,600—for help in pleading their case to the city. But, citing the contract it had already entered into with KCLS, the city was objecting. If it were to allow the initiative to proceed and the people voted to keep the library over the river, the argument went, it would be forced to breach that contract, which was prohibited by city law. By the end of the night, the council voted—by a count of four to three—to reject the initiative. Marcie Palmer, one of the three dissenting votes, later wept in her car.

No one will admit it now, but that vote may have actually been influenced by two letters sent from Bill Ptacek to Renton’s chief administrative officer in the weeks prior and that only later came to light when Avery’s group uncovered them through a Freedom of Information Act request. “I do not like to threaten litigation and KCLS values our good working relationship with the City of Renton,” one missive reads. “In the event our efforts to date are rendered wasted…KCLS will necessarily need to pursue whatever remedies are available to it to recover any damages.”

Neither Mayor Law nor Ptacek will comment directly on the letters. Both refer instead to their commitment to the partnership. In fact Ptacek calls KCLS a “good soldier” that agreed to follow the city’s lead, wherever it might take them.

When Avery describes his involvement in the fight for the Cedar River library, he talks of metaphorical doors that against all odds kept opening for him. The most significant one opened the day after that meeting. Having had a night to sleep on the public’s comments, the city issued a press release announcing that it would “explore some options” for allowing the citizens to decide the fate of the library. And two weeks later, the council voted again on whether to add the initiative to the August 7, 2012, primary ballot. This time they relented, by a vote of seven to zero.

For months Avery had been told that arguing with the city and KCLS was pointless. And that summer, as he and Asher and the others who’d gathered signatures turned their attention to campaigning to keep the library over the river, they still felt, at times, like their efforts would be wasted. The group was taking on the city, and it had raised just north of $5,000 to convince at least 51 percent of the public that the library over the river was worth saving.

On August 7, Marcie Palmer hosted an election-night party at her home to watch as the returns came in. Dozens of people, maybe even 60 or 70, showed up. Avery and Asher were there, and so was Mark Martinez, the man who was willing to drive on bald tires if that’s what it took to convince the city that his voice meant something. Even Donald Custer, the city’s former mayor who’d stood beside Laurie Renton at the library’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1966, made an appearance. And as the first reports flashed on the TV screen in Palmer’s living room, they could see the vote was a landslide. In the end, more than three-quarters of Renton voters chose to keep the Cedar River library right where it had been for nearly 50 years. It was finally over.

 

 

Except that it wasn’t. Initial designs for the new library over the river revealed a floor plan that was less than half the size of the building it would replace. Avery and Asher and their crew fought back and won again. The new library will be 19,500 square feet, just a few thousand less than the original.

And then there was the entrance, the iconic opening at the midpoint of the bridge that—to some—made the library that much more special. It was deemed too difficult to pull off in the new design by KCLS’s architects; instead, patrons will enter from one end of the building. Beth Asher and others fought on (and, for the first time, failed), but that’s where Avery broke with the others. He’d accomplished what he wanted, and he had to turn his attentions to his campaign for city council; the experience of speaking up for the library had stirred in him a sense of civic duty, and so in June he filed to run for a seat vacated by the council’s outgoing president, Rich Zwicker. “I’m ready to move on,” he says. “I understand that you have to compromise and you’re not going to get everything.” His and Asher’s paths will cross again, on November 5. She’s also running for a seat on the council.
And just to prove there are no hard feelings after the split, he supports her 100 percent. “She’s diligent, she’s smart, and she digs up information. But she also understands that other people
are allowed to have opinions as well.”

Ironically, while he’s proud of his work on the library initiative, Avery finds himself in a difficult spot now as he courts votes. The continued fight for what’s become known as the midspan entrance has eroded a good portion of the goodwill that the efforts to save the library built up during the initiative
process. So he’s walking a fine line between touting his involvement in it and distancing himself from the ongoing battle. Avery’s facing an uphill road anyway. He’s a political outsider, and his opponent, Armando Pavone, has already locked up Zwicker’s endorsement.

He’s oddly Zen about the whole thing, though. “Whether I’m elected by popular vote to represent the city on the city council,” Avery says, “it doesn’t matter.” Besides, there’s still that car in his driveway that needs work and the lawn that needs mowing.

 

 

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Seattle Met.

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