Olympia should reclaim historic Sylvester Park

The OlympianJanuary 22, 2014 

A gathering of several hundred May Day participants enjoyed music, food and even the traditional Maypole wile listening to a series of speeches addressing topics ranging from worker's rights to other social justice issues May 1st In Sylvester Park.The group later in the afternoon marched through downtown Olympia, stopping briefly at several banking institutions for quick on-site rallies.


Rep. Chris Reykdal wants to turn Sylvester Park over to the city of Olympia. It’s a nice gesture to a city with such fondness for open spaces that it has two new parks underway — one in a vacant lot around the artesian well and another on the much-debated and blighted isthmus properties.

The city’s Police and Parks departments have already said “no thanks,” citing multiple reasons, including an annual price tag for maintaining and policing the park that runs the state about $100,000. It hardly makes sense for a city that is robbing money from established parks to fund the isthmus development to take on another tax-dollar-eating project.

Or does it?

Sylvester Park started life as a city park. According to the Olympia Historical Society, when Olympia co-founder Edmund Sylvester platted the downtown in 1848, he included a commons at the city’s center.

Thurston County built the Old State Capitol Building, which now houses the state schools superintendent, as a courthouse. It opened in 1892 and was sold to the state 10 years later for use as the Capitol.

The state also acquired the commons — now named Sylvester Park — shortly afterwards in 1905 because the new Capitol overlooked the public square and together they made an attractive Capitol Campus.

Today’s Capitol Campus, completed in 1928, has no geographic connection to Sylvester Park. It can barely claim a logical connection with the state-owned Heritage Park, which hugs the east side of Capitol Lake and was created as part of the Wilder and White architects’ grand vision.

So in terms of history and geography, it makes sense to return Sylvester Park to its original owners.

From a practical standpoint, the park is used by the city almost exclusively. The Olympia Downtown Association holds its summer music series there, and The Olympian’s annual Pet Parade concludes in the park with free ice cream and prizes.

It all sounds rosy and natural for the city to take back Sylvester Park.

Except that most of the time the park is dominated by transient people, young travelers, drunks and drug addicts.

Most of the state’s $100,000 annual expense goes to sweeping the park clean of discarded syringes and policing drug-related and violent crimes.

It’s no surprise that Reykdal’s idea doesn’t excite Olympia police and parks employees.

But with the right funding mechanism in place to compensate Olympia for taking back the park, the state representative’s plan might have a net benefit to the city. Reykdal’s plan is to spend 2014 working out details of a mutually beneficial transfer of ownership and to introduce legislation in 2015.

The city doesn’t need responsibility for another park, but Sylvester’s vision of a public commons has historical significance.

City officials should work with Reykdal to reclaim a key component of its founder’s original townscape vision.

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