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Originally published August 19, 2013 at 8:22 PM | Page modified August 20, 2013 at 11:55 AM

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Down by the river, a fight over the fate of the Renton Library

A ruling is expected soon on whether Renton’s library built over a river is a historic building and whether its entrance on a bridge must be retained. It’s all part of an ongoing fight over the annexation of the city-run library into the King County system.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Sketcher

Gabriel Campanario, 2011

Renton's Liberty Park Library is perched on concrete pylons and suspended over the Cedar River. How cool is that?

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From its beginning in 1966 as a “covered bridge” over the Cedar River, the Renton Library was anything but typical.

While most libraries were still the imposing Andrew Carnegie edifices in brick and stone, Renton’s nestled in nature, flanked a park and became a beloved community hub.

Step out the main doors onto a walkway at the center of the bridge and come face to face with the river flowing over rocks and through banks of blackberries, alder and cottonwood. Sometimes spawning fish flash past.

To many people who live in the Renton area, the library and its location over the Cedar River is a place of the heart — one worth fighting for when anyone dares to think of changing it, even if the changes are in the name of progress.

Three years after a vote to annex to the King County Library System, a debate still flares, in what some say is the most contentious annexation fight in the system’s 71 years.

Any day now, a hearings examiner is expected to rule on the city of Renton’s position that the building has no historic value and that there is no legal requirement to record, photograph or catalog anything before it’s razed, or to create for a new library an entryway in the middle of the bridge.

Those are key points sought by the Citizens to Save the Cedar River Library Again. The group insists that the building is historic, wants the door in the middle of the bridge just like now and accuses county library and city officials of being unwilling to listen to them as taxpayers.

To Bill Ptacek, the King County Library System director, and Renton Mayor Denis Law, the request by the citizens group is petty.

Renton’s library was annexed in 2010, one of the last few city-operated libraries in King County (excluding Seattle) to join the county system, followed by Enumclaw in 2012. Only Hunts Point and Yarrow Point, which voted against annexation in 2004, remain outside the district.

Library-annexation fights are not unusual, especially as small, independent libraries look to joining the county system as a solution to budget shortfalls. By the end of the 1990s, most of the libraries across the state had joined larger library systems and more were annexed in the next decade, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, an independent nonprofit devoted to providing research services to local governments.

In Enumclaw, the Enumclaw Patch carried letters to the editor from citizens who cautioned against the annexation of the 90-year-old city library and sang the praises of its folksy nature.

Many libraries, Renton’s included, are places of nostalgia, filled with donated items — historic photos, books and artifacts. When Enumclaw’s was annexed, a special provision was made to preserve some of the historic items.

Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognized the importance of libraries as gathering places when it recently listed them as essential services, right along with police, fire, hospitals and schools. Libraries are where people go in times of need to fill out forms, to meet friends, or at other times, simply to gather, according to the federal agency.

The Renton citizens group wants the new building in the same place as the existing one spanning the river and wants to have the door in the same location — at the center of the bridge — preserving the “experience of entering from the bridge,’’ said Beth Asher, of the group. She calls the library an architectural marvel, an aesthetic treasure worth fighting for.

And fight, the group has.

One major victory was overturning an earlier decision by the city and the county library system to put a new library at the site of the former Big 5 Sporting Goods store north of downtown. The citizens group protested, and in August 2012, 76 percent of the voters decided in favor of the river site.

However, when the group asked the City Council this past April to overturn the annexation to King County, the council refused.

While the county system now operates the library, money for the new downtown library and one in the Renton Highlands comes from the city. Each is to cost $10 million. The Highlands library has no opposition.

“We came up with a really good plan in a really difficult site,’’ Ptacek said of the Renton Library. “There are a couple of folks that are unhappy about everything. They continue to put roadblocks up.’’

The proposed plan is smaller than the existing library by about 2,000 square feet, but “there is going to be much more usable space,’’ he said.

Law said the new library will be a “beautiful icon on the river.’’

Renton’s first library was built near the current site at 100 Mill Ave. S. in 1914 with a $10,000 Andrew Carnegie Foundation grant.

The Carnegie Foundation paid for 43 libraries in the state, all early in the 20th century, and by the 1960s many communities, Renton among them, had replaced them.

Now the repairs — earthquake retrofitting, electrical, upgrading and adding computers and other equipment — to the building are estimated to cost between $8 million and $10 million. Operating the library was becoming difficult as the city faced budget cutbacks.

As the debate continues from online forums to coffee shops and council chambers, one sentiment emerges time and again: the belief that neither the city of Renton nor the county system is listening.

“What we are trying to do is get them to recognize something that has become a cultural resource over the last nearly 50 years,’’ said Renton architect David Keyes.

Two of the leaders in the citizens group, Stuart Avery and Asher, feel so strongly about needing to be heard over the library issue, they are taking their campaign to a new level: They are running for Renton City Council in the November election.

Nancy Bartley: nbartley@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8522

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