Citizens urge Olympia City Council to reconsider closing downtown park

People packed the Olympia City Council chambers Tuesday to voice their concerns about the proposed closure of a downtown park at the historic artesian well.

The city’s Land Use and Environmental Committee agreed last week to recommend that the council temporarily close the Artesian Commons, located in a former parking lot at 415 Fourth Ave.

The 0.2-acre park opened in May as a gathering space that includes the artesian well where the public can bottle free-flowing water. However, city leaders are concerned about safety and criminal activity at the park – specifically due to reports of violence, drug use, vandalism and similar behaviors by park users.

No decision was made Tuesday about the park’s fate. However, the well water will remain accessible to the public regardless of what happens to the park, according to council members.

Councilman Steve Langer, who heads the land use committee, said the city needs a plan for managing unwanted activity at the park.

"The main concern that we’ve had is the health and safety of people down at the park," Langer said Tuesday. "Our intention is to re-open the park. We just need to get control of that space first."

At Tuesday’s meeting, 19 people spoke during public comment to defend the park. Several urged the council to consider the consequences of closing it.

Olympia resident David Rauh, general manager of Mixx 96.1 FM, told the council that the Artesian Commons has had its share of successes, such as a series of family-friendly performances held this summer.

"If we simply fence it off and disperse those individuals, those problems are going to move back onto the sidewalks," Rauh said Tuesday. "I’m not sure a fence around the park is the answer that’s going to make the problem go away."

Olympia resident Connie Phegley, owner of Old School Pizza, said she has noticed a difference in downtown behavior since the park opened, such as less loitering at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street, for example. She recommended that the city stick with the process and move forward, no matter how painful.

Creating the park has cost about $253,000 so far, according to the city. The city’s parks department has reported that the Artesian Commons is one of the most heavily used parks.

The proposal for closing the park is slated to go back to the land use committee for further review, said Mayor Stephen Buxbaum.