Olympia is moving forward with a plan to manage problematic behavior at the downtown Artesian Commons, starting with installation of a new fence this spring.
The Olympia City Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday for staff to take action on the park, which opened last May at the historic artesian well at 415 Fourth Ave.
Parks Director Paul Simmons confirmed that both the park and the well will stay open while the city pursues a long-term management strategy.
The tiny park, which measures 0.2 acres, has become a magnet for criticism and nuisance behavior since it opened. The park is also a popular gathering spot for homeless people and downtown street youth.
The ultimate goal is to keep the space clean and safe while providing more recreational options, Simmons said. The first step is to install a 4-foot fence — with gates to close the park at night — along with a basketball hoop.
“If we want to have this in by the summer, we need to get moving,” Simmons told the council Tuesday.
The new fence would also separate the artesian well from the rest of the park, although the well would be accessible 24 hours a day.
Other plans include adding lights, security cameras and signage that shows park hours. Simmons also proposed the creation of an Artesian Commons Leadership Committee and action teams that would contribute to the park’s management.
Parks staff will now provide maintenance two hours a day — something that wasn’t budgeted last year when the park opened, Simmons said.
One key strategy is to host more events and activities at the park this summer. Last summer’s Play at the Well entertainment series was cited as a good example of creating a positive presence at the park.
“When there’s positive programming happening, it’s a very different space,” said Simmons, who set a goal of 20 hours a week of structured programming at the park.
Chris Belton, a daily park user, bemoaned the lack of recreational opportunities and said he agrees with installing a fence to close the park at night.
However, homeless people should not be blamed for problems at the Artesian Commons, he said, especially with few public spaces available downtown for the homeless to gather and connect.
“When people say, ‘I’m scared to go to the well,’ what are they afraid of?” Belton said. “Instead of complaining, you should do something about it.”
City officials — who at first suggested closing the park — have reiterated a desire to collaborate with everyone from social service agencies to the street community.
“We need to capture the energy of the youth that are there instead of fighting it,” Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said. “Together we can make something good happen in that space.”
Outreach groups already maintain a presence at the park, whether by bringing food or building relationships.
“It’s about engaging people across the spectrum,” said Renata Rollins, a community organizer who helped start the Olympia Outreach Workers League. “If you want downtown to be friendlier, then come downtown and be friendly.”
Charlie Kruger, co-organizer of the PB&J Project, hands out free sandwiches three days a week at the park — referred to colloquially as “the well” — and has gotten to know the park’s regular users. Missing from the park, he said, are amenities that were initially promised by the city such as food trucks, a basketball hoop, hand washing stations and a stage for entertainment.
Kruger said the city has failed to humanize the space, which for the time being is just a parking lot with paint all over it.
“There’s nothing to do at the well. That’s the problem,” Kruger said Wednesday. “A fence won’t solve anything because people will hang out outside the fence.”
Kruger added that the perception of safety at the park is skewed.
“No one’s getting shot here,” he said. “This isn’t Philly or Compton or Newark.”
However, data from Olympia police show more arrests at the park since it opened. Police made 44 total arrests at the park between May 3 and Dec. 31, 2014. Nine arrests were related to drinking in public, four arrests were due to disorderly conduct, four arrests were reported for assault and 13 arrests were based on warrants.
The previous year, police made 27 arrests in the same May-December period, and in 2012, there were eight arrests in that time period at the site.
Complaint calls in that time period ballooned to 504 last year — compared to 442 calls between May 2012 and the park’s opening in May 2014.
George Mercado, who is homeless, hangs out at the Artesian Commons daily. Mercado said the park has its share of negative behavior such as yelling or fighting, but he said he rarely sees police on site.
“Cops don’t really have a good reputation around here,” he said Wednesday. “I haven’t seen any fights where the cops showed up.”
Olympia resident Jeffery Kerrick, who was homeless for five years, said the city is being too heavy-handed by installing a fence and more cameras. He understands the rules against drinking and drug use at the park, but said the park needs to viewed as a haven with opportunities to wash and eat.
“If you put up a fence, it’s just going to get worse,” he said. “Give the homeless and street community a safe place to go.”