Artesian plan keeps city options open

The Artesian Commons, a tiny park in downtown Olympia, opened last May with high hopes. It was envisioned as a gathering place that would draw food trucks, downtown employees, and other Olympians to the hip and historic site of our town’s last public artesian well.

For many decades, people have come from far and wide to collect water from the well. Some believe that it has special health benefits; others think it makes better coffee because it’s unchlorinated. A local hydrogeologist reports that water from the well fell as rain in the Cascade foothills 1,000 or more years ago, giving it even more purity points.

But since the park opened, the focus on the water has been overshadowed by clientele at the site measuring one-fifth of an acre. It quickly became a gathering place for what social workers call “street-dependent youth” and people who may be homeless, mentally ill, or addicted to alcohol or street drugs.

Late last fall, the Olympia police chief, citing a rise in crime and police calls to the park, recommended its closure. But at a City Council meeting in December, there was an eloquent outpouring of support for keeping it open. Street youth, social service providers, and advocates all spoke about its importance as a place where people in need found community, and where outreach workers could help connect them with resources to improve their lives.

There were also questions about whether the increase in crime at the park was actually good news for Fourth Avenue businesses, even if there could be a corresponding decrease in crime and loitering on their sidewalks. So far, there is no hard data from the police department about whether this is true.

The certain good news is that the controversy about the park resulted in a public policy-making process that has been commendable for its inclusiveness, civility, and its focus on solving a problem rather than laying blame.

The goal of the process was for the park to be “safe and welcoming for all.” To that end, the dozen or so organizations that provide meals, activities, and outreach at the park have pledged to provide a minimum of 20 hours per week of presence in the park.

The city’s Parks, Arts and Recreation department will convene an Artesian Commons Leadership Committee to provide oversight, and to monitor the park more closely. The committee will include the representatives of downtown businesses, the police, Community Youth Services, the Downtown Ambassadors, and others, possibly including a City Council member. This group will continue to work on improving the park’s safety, increasing planned activities, evaluating the park’s effects on neighboring businesses, and figuring out how and whether to alter the park’s design.

The park will be closed at night, as other parks are, and it will have fencing, more lighting and more cameras to monitor activity. Like most other parks, it will also have a basketball hoop.

Whether this plan works remains to be seen, but it’s a great beginning to what we hope is a trend toward finding creative ways to address the needs of street people, encourage civil behavior and civic engagement, and make all of downtown “a safe and welcoming place for all.”