By Felix Chrome
The Artesian Commons, more commonly known as “the Well,” may be seeing some changes in the near future. On Feb. 3, the Olympia City Council approved a plan for stricter management of the park surrounding the well, in an attempt curtail behaviors some see as problematic.
The plan has yet to be fully outlined, but will begin with the installation of a fence around the park and institution of regular public park hours, leaving the space open from dawn to dusk, but closed to the public at night.
The fence would divide the actual artesian well from the rest of the park, allowing the public to continue accessing water 24 hours per day, but prevent people from gathering when the park is closed.
In June 2013, the City Council decided to turn the well into a city park. Prior to this decision, the well was a common gathering space, but technically just a parking lot. They approved a $153,000 plan and solicited input and designs from the public.
During spring 2014, the city closed the lot for renovations and reopened it, looking mostly the same, besides some new picnic tables, and officially deemed it a city park. They later hired local artist Jean Nagai to paint a large mural, attempting to make the space more appealing, and licensed food trucks to operate from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
This effort to fix up the lot is part of The Downtown Project, an ongoing plan to revitalize downtown, which the city government website states as, “a multi-directional approach that focuses on a variety of key projects in four categories: Clean, Safe, Economic Development, and Placemaking.”
Brian Wilson, Olympia’s downtown liaison, stated, “These programs are designed to get downtown building and business owners, employees, customers, and the greater community all involved in downtown revitalization and safety efforts.”
However, it seems the creation of this park was not completely successful in meeting those goals, as the city of Olympia continues to worry about illegal and nuisance behaviors associated with the area.
Just over six months after the park opened, and after spending $253,000, the City Council began looking at plans to close the park. In December, the Olympia Land Use and Environment Committee recommended that the park be temporarily closed as they looked at what to do with the area.
The city has since decided against closing the park completely, but their new plan would limit access to the space.
For this reason, some community members have expressed concerns about further reduction of public space in downtown Olympia, especially since the Well is known as a place that many homeless and street-dependent people tend to utilize.
The 2014 Thurston County Homeless Census found that only 56 percent of homeless individuals in Thurston County are sheltered, with most of the remaining 44 percent of homeless people staying outdoors. For these 44 percent, safe spaces are limited.
Olympia’s “Pedestrian Interface Ordinance,” and other laws, make it illegal to obstruct pedestrian traffic downtown. This includes sitting or lying on the sidewalk in a manner that could “obstruct or impede… the free passage of any person or vehicle, or to require another person or a driver of a vehicle to take action to avoid physical contact.” The ordinance also bans sitting and lying on the sidewalk at all between the hours of 7 a.m. and midnight. It is also illegal to gather with three or more people on the sidewalk or panhandle “aggressively,” which is defined as “conduct that would likely intimidate a reasonable person.”
As a result, parks are one of the few places that homeless and street-dependent people can be without being asked to move, or threatened with fines by police. Critics worry that limiting access to the Well, or reducing open spaces downtown, is an attempt to discriminate against and push out homeless people.
The City Council minutes from 2012, when they were discussing these regulations, state that the “goal for downtown isn’t to move people out, but to create an opportunity for everyone to feel safe.” Their minutes also state that, in a presentation, “Police Chief Ronnie Roberts pointed out that many people use downtown and that congestion can create fear.”