It’s more than the water: Artesian Commons has come a long way in downtown Olympia

Olympia’s Artesian Commons draws diverse visitors

The Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia offers access to the free-flowing artesian well and it's storied water.
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The Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia offers access to the free-flowing artesian well and it's storied water.

Nearly three years after it officially opened in downtown Olympia, the Artesian Commons has struggled with a reputation for negative behavior while becoming the city’s busiest park.

The 0.2-acre park at 415 Fourth Ave. E. is a popular hangout for the street community and is home to the historic artesian well, which has long attracted people from all walks of life.

A visitor to the park can witness a range of scenarios from park patrons: people sitting at tables in peaceful conversation, people yelling obscenity-laden tirades, people tossing a basketball, people exhaling clouds of marijuana smoke, people feeding those in need, people passed out against a wall that’s covered in chalk graffiti, people fighting.

Despite its small size, the Artesian Commons also generates about 9 yards of garbage a week, according to the city, which reports that the 40-acre Yauger Park in comparison nets 12 yards of garbage a week.

Complaints and concerns over public health and safety at the Artesian Commons have sparked a number of ongoing city initiatives designed to make everyone feel welcome to use the park.

But if there’s one thing that puts everyone on common ground, it’s the water.

Clear, unfiltered spring water flows freely at 10 gallons a minute from a pipe in the park, ready to be sipped or bottled 24 hours a day. That water source has had a fanatical following since long before the park was created, and people still stream into the area all day to fill bottles. Sometimes a well user will wash their feet or brush their teeth in the water.

“Even though I have a shared well at home, I still like the taste of this better,” said Thurston County resident Tim Todd as he loaded several 5-gallon water jugs into his vehicle.

Perceptions of the site

From Aug. 17-20, the city’s Artesian Leadership Committee conducted a survey of 414 well-users about their experience gathering water at the site. The results highlight the devotion of artesian well-users and reveal an overall positive outlook on the Artesian Commons.

▪ When asked how the creation of the Artesian Commons has affected their experience collecting water at the well, 52 percent said the park improved the experience, 25 percent said the experience was “about the same,” and 14 percent said the park had worsened their experience at the well. Comments ranged from supportive (“more pleasant,” “fun to see people enjoying the park” and “better/cleaner”) to more critical (“tweekers,” “noisy and congested” and “too many undesirables”).

▪ Survey participants were asked about positive and negative behaviors they have seen at the park. The top positive behaviors were listed as cleaning up, courtesy, friendliness, respect and turn-taking. “Not-so-positive” behaviors included excessive noise, smoking, unpleasant appearance and rudeness. Negative behaviors included drug use, drug dealing and unhygienic behavior.

▪ When asked if they had been threatened, attacked or had difficulty with dogs at the park or while visiting the well, 95 percent of survey respondents said no.

▪ When asked whether the presence of a well host and park ranger has had any effect on their experience, 53 percent cited a “good” impact while 36 percent said they had not met the host and ranger. Ten percent said their presence had no impact.

▪ About 85 percent of well-users live in Thurston County, with 57 percent coming from Olympia.

▪ About 54 percent of well-users were younger than 50, but the largest age group of those surveyed — ages 50-59 — represented 22 percent of users.

▪ Of the respondents, 29 percent said they traveled 4 to 10 miles to visit the well, while 22 percent said they traveled more than 10 miles.

▪ When asked how long they had been visiting the well, 38 percent of respondents reported 10 or more years. About 15 percent visit the well daily, 27 percent visit two to three times a week, and 32 percent visit once a week.

▪ As for the amount of water collected per visit, 34 percent said they leave with more than 6 gallons. The most common amount is 4 to 6 gallons per visit, collected by 27 percent of survey respondents.

▪ The artesian well is the primary source of drinking water for 70 percent of survey takers and is the only source of drinking water for 29 percent of respondents.

Two of Olympia's homeless share their opposing views of life on the streets of Olympia.

‘It’s not perfect and we know that’

Launched in 2015, the Artesian Leadership Committee consists of stakeholders from the city, Parks Department and nonprofit organizations who help manage the park.

Olympia City Council member Jessica Bateman has served on the committee for a year and said she was surprised at the survey’s largely positive feedback from frequent visitors to the artesian well. She credits the ongoing focus on community activities and safety, in addition to building relationships with people who hang out at the park.

“There’s more progress to be made,” Bateman said. “But if you create a positive environment, you’re going to see positive results.”

Well host Garrett Cooper and park ranger Lee Wyatt have developed a rapport with park users during their seasonal shifts that run Tuesdays through Saturdays between May and October. The city allocated $30,000 to fund the seasonal positions, which will return in the spring.

As well host, Cooper engages visitors in conversation or even a giant chess board. The Army veteran has a respectable “adult in the room” presence among the youths and young adults who congregate there.

“Our main goal here is to keep it positive and safe,” Cooper told The Olympian.

As park ranger, Wyatt has a secret weapon for enforcing the park’s rules: a basketball.

For Wyatt, basketball forged an interactive link to the street community last summer — and may have kept a few young park patrons out of trouble. The physical activity offered a temporary escape from street life, said Wyatt, although some people just wanted someone to listen.

Wyatt said the attitude has spread among the park’s regulars, who have been known to self-police unwanted behaviors when he and Cooper are unavailable. He agreed that building trust and relationships may have fostered more respect for the park and its rules. One well-user observed in the survey that “when they are not around, it is a different crowd.”

“There was a change from day one when we stepped into that well” area, Wyatt said. “A lot of people don’t have someone to talk to. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”

Police reports from the past year suggest that unwanted behavior has been somewhat curbed. In 2016, the Olympia Police Department filed 48 reports related to the Artesian Commons. Of those reports, 36 resulted in arrests, including 12 arrests for outstanding warrants and at least 10 arrests for assault. Most of the victims of the crimes were listed as transient or homeless.

In comparison, there were 44 arrests in the first eight months after the Artesian Commons officially opened in May 2014.

But park officials acknowledge that the Artesian Commons still faces an uphill journey to turn its image around.

“It’s not perfect and we know that,” said Olympia Park Ranger Sylvana Niehuser, who runs the city’s park stewardship program. “We hope people can be patient and look at how much progress we’ve made and know we’re striving to make more progress.”

Step by step

In 2010, the city bought the artesian well and surrounding Diamond Parking Lot at 415 Fourth Ave. E. with a goal of turning the space into a public park. Construction began in March 2014 after multiple public workshops. The site officially opened three months later.

At the grand opening ceremonies in May 2014, city officials were optimistic about the Artesian Commons and its potential to become a popular destination for downtown residents and visitors.

At the time, the park was intended to become an urban oasis that hosted food trucks and similar vendors, who had trouble meeting health requirements.

But it didn’t take long for the new park to develop a reputation for trouble. In addition to generating complaints about drug use and vandalism, the park saw a 63 percent rise in arrests for crimes such as drinking in public, disorderly conduct and assault, according to police data.

In a 2015 survey about the city’s park system, about 35 percent of respondents said they felt unsafe at some city parks. The most-cited park was the Artesian Commons, with 11 percent saying they felt unsafe there.

In response, the city has installed a fence, basketball hoop, lighting and security cameras. A porta-potty was installed at the park’s north end. Murals were painted on the ground and wall. The city began closing the park at dusk while leaving 24-hour access to the well.

Since 2014, the city has devoted more than $800,000 to the park when adding up all the renovations and a proposed permanent restroom that’s slated for installation this summer.

Local groups have sponsored events there, including the free Bridge Summer Concert Series by Community Youth Services, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless youths. The Downtown Ambassador Program hosted free “Play at the Well” events with theatrical performances and picnics. The annual National Night Out block party has set up shop at the Artesian Commons for the past three summers.

The annual Thurston County homeless census has included music and revelry at the park, while a gathering last summer for International Overdose Awareness Day raised awareness about the dangers of opiate addiction.

The community has volunteered with such efforts as a mellow May Day celebration in 2015 by a group that called itself the Well Wishers. A nonprofit group called Partners in Prevention Education, which supports at-risk and homeless youths, including the LGBTQ community, has hosted movie nights at the well.

Renata Rollins is among the more visible and passionate advocates for the street community. She has regularly promoted community-building functions at the Artesian Commons.

“It’s a free space, at least in theory,” she said, noting that people living in poverty and homelessness face their own challenges for finding a safe place. “It’s a place where you don’t need money in order to hang out there.”

But are these image-shaping public safety efforts in vain? Last summer’s survey suggests that well-users — who still found plenty of flaws at the Artesian Commons — have a different perspective of the park’s pros and cons than those whose observations are based on what they see driving by.

The well itself, however, seems to do no wrong.

“Water is life,” Rollins said. “To have free clean water — there’s something sacred about that.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs