From fences to cameras, Olympia looks for ways to improve security at artesian well

City officials are crafting a plan to manage a problem-plagued park at the artesian well in downtown Olympia.

The plan includes fencing off the Artesian Commons at night, scheduling more public events during the day, and possibly adding more surveillance cameras.

The vest-pocket park — just two-tenths of an acre — opened last May in an old parking lot at 415 Fourth Ave. W.

However, the park has been generating complaints over safety and security — specifically smoking, drug use, vandalism and other unwanted behavior.

The Olympia Police Department reports a notable increase in arrests and calls at the Artesian Commons.

Police made 44 arrests in the nine months after the park opened May 3 of last year. The previous year, they made 27 in the same May-December period, and in 2012, eight. At the same time, complaint calls increased to 504 last year from 97 in 2012.

The park’s primary users come from the downtown street community. On any given day, street youths can be seen congregating on the premises while a steady stream of people arrive at the park’s southern edge to fill water bottles at the well, which has been flowing since around 1895 and once was a major source of drinking water downtown.

Parks director Paul Simmons said the Artesian Commons is one of the city’s most-used public spaces, and is therefore more difficult to maintain and keep clean.

Simmons drafted a plan for the park’s “next steps” and presented it Thursday to the Land Use and Environment Committee. A suggestion to temporarily close the park had surfaced in the committee in December. City officials have said if the park closes for improvements, the public can still access the artesian well 24 hours a day.

One immediate priority is to install a 4-foot-tall fence with a gate. Simmons said the city needs a way to close the park at night. He expects the process to take about five months for the fence’s design and installation, and said the cost could exceed the initially allotted $25,000.

The city also wants to install a basketball hoop, more lighting and better signs for park hours. The site has one camera that monitors the area near the well, and Simmons suggested adding one or two extra cameras.

Parks staff recommends 20 hours of “structured programming” every week between May and September, with eight special events in 2015. Simmons said the park was “a totally different space” last August during the Play at the Well entertainment series, which featured free live theatrical performances for all ages.

“Those events really demonstrated the potential of the park,” Simmons said Thursday.

Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower echoed that sentiment and said “good activities get people to go somewhere else to do bad stuff.”

“There is no way we’ll be able to arrest our way out of problems down there,” Lower told the committee, adding that partnerships can turn the park around. “We’re in it with you guys.”

A management strategy includes a proposed Artesian Commons Leadership Committee, with members coming from the city and local service organizations. Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said the city must seek participation from the street youths who frequent the park in order to foster more respect for the space.

“We have to get them on board,” Roe said Thursday.

An ideal vision of the park’s potential was demonstrated recently during Youth Count, an event organized as part of the annual Thurston County homeless census. People packed the park Thursday afternoon for hot dogs, live music and socializing. Social service agencies set up booths to connect people with resources.

“This is a fun celebration for young people in the space where they already hang out,” said Keylee Marineau of Community Youth Services, which serves many of the people who frequent the Artesian Commons. “We have a vested interest in this park.”