Young street people have occupied the vacant lot near the City of Olympia’s artesian well site for years, primarily during the warmer shoulder seasons and summer. They have mixed there with others to create an often-intimidating space adjacent to a bar-lined stretch of Fourth Avenue where crime sometimes occurs and that some people choose to avoid.
The City of Olympia has tried for the past year to turn the well site into a welcoming city park, named the Artesian Well Park, to attract nearby office workers and others who would use the park in more positive ways. But, so far at least, it has only made a nicer place for the same old bunch.
The city’s reluctance to make a total commitment to the park belies its own skepticism.
Fresh paint and planters with flowers and shrubbery formed a park-like feel – a kind of urban oasis. Picnic benches and power hookups were meant to attract mobile food venders that would, in turn, draw a more diverse crowd.
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But the anticipated clientele hasn’t appeared, so the one and only taco truck left after a matter of weeks. It’s not surprising.
The well site lacks the softer amenities found in the successful privately owned food truck location further up Fourth Avenue near Plum Street, which has a naturally landscaped area protected from street noise and further from the epicenter of bars and street people.
During a recent daytime tour of the Artesian Well Park, City Council member Jeannine Roe and Assistant City Manger Jay Burney felt sufficiently concerned by an encounter with an agitated and angry young person to phone 911 for assistance. The person was arrested.
The city will now try a more promising approach that has worked in other cities.
The City of Seattle has staged noontime yoga classes, ping-pong matches and a World Cup viewing party to turn around urban parks that have succumbed to open drug and alcohol use. The model for this strategy is New York City’s Bryant Park that was reclaimed from drug dealers into a lively public space with flowers, cafes and live entertainment visited by about 8 million people annually.
Three local theater groups will stage performances at the Artesian Well Park during the noon hour on three consecutive Saturdays. The Capital Recovery Center and the Downtown Ambassador Program will sponsor them. The Olympia Boys & Girls Club and Together! will organize family-friendly activities.
These are, of course, baby steps for Olympia. A few hours of scheduled activity on three Saturdays can’t hope to transform a space used 24/7 by street people who may or may not be homeless, and may suffer from mental illness and/or addiction.
If staged activities are the solution, the city should not hesitate to plan and fund them throughout the afternoons and evenings, Monday through Saturday, May through September. To do less, we fear, will effect little long-term change.
That said, the “Play! At the Well” event series represents a welcome effort by the city, downtown advocates and nonprofits to improve the city’s core. We hope it successfully primes the pump for a more spontaneous, inclusive and full schedule of activities.