Demolition crews will start tearing down the concrete fountain in Anchorage's Town Square Park early Monday morning, nearly two weeks after Mayor Ethan Berkowitz called the fountain a "hiding spot" for people engaged in petty crimes and other illegal activity.
After the fountain is gone, the city will launch a major redesign of the plaza in the heart of downtown. The moves come amid amplified safety concerns about Town Square, a space some say no longer feels like it belongs to everyone, but to a small community of regulars who use it as a shelter or place to use drugs.
Berkowitz said the removal of the fountain is a first step toward reducing crime in the park. The fountain, which was installed in the mid-1990s, hasn't worked for several years and has plumbing and electrical problems. Police have said it blocks visibility across the square and its back wall serves as a refuge for overnight campers and drug users.
At an Anchorage Assembly public safety meeting this week, City Development Director Chris Schutte described the fountain as a "cancer."
"The only way to operate on that cancer is to take the fountain out and get a look at the insides," Schutte said.
On Sunday night, fencing will go up around the fountain. A large excavator is set to begin demolition work at 7 a.m. Monday, said parks superintendent Josh Durand. The city hopes to finish the demolition by Thursday.
The demolition contractor is Anchorage-based GMG General Inc., working under a contract that won't exceed $50,000, Durand said.
Schutte also said the city had been in touch with a niece of Eunice Silberer, the widow of Anchorage businessman Dick Silberer, who donated $150,000 to build the fountain. Schutte said the city plans to honor the family's wishes in preserving a memorial plaque there and to also make some kind of future addition to recognize the donation.
Duran said the area occupied by the fountain will mainly be turned into a concrete plaza that could serve as an event stage.
In August or September, Schutte said, the city will get started on a new master plan for the park. A citizen advisory group will be appointed, and the master planning process could take six months to a year, Durand said. The city recently wrapped up a master plan for the new Muldoon Town Square Park.
Dianne Holmes, a neighborhood activist who has fought over the years to protect the park, said Schutte had contacted her about serving on the citizen advisory group. She said she plans to participate and hopes the group will be "balanced."
She also said she doesn't think much should be done as far as changing the design of the square.
"To me, get rid of the fountain, but leave the rest alone," Holmes said. "They've already designed it enough."
But Dwayne Adams, an Anchorage landscape architect who was involved with carrying out the park's original master plan, said it may be time to look at more dramatic changes.
When Town Square Park was first installed, the hill design was intended to be a peaceful oasis from the rest of downtown. But the city has changed, and Adams said public discussion around Town Square now suggests a new master plan is appropriate.
"The best battle plan is obsolete the second the first bullet is fired," Adams said, quoting an old military saying. "Master plans are much the same. They should respond to changing times and a changing public."
Adams said he hates to see the fountain go. He said he admires the designer — San Francisco architect Angela Danadjieva, whose other projects include a concrete sculpture in Freeway Park in Seattle and the Keller Fountain in Portland.
Town Square smoking, vaping ban coming back to Assembly
Meanwhile, as the city starts to focus more closely on changing the atmosphere in Town Square, Assembly Vice Chair Dick Traini is trying to clear the air there by banning smoking and vaping.
Traini will reintroduce a measure Tuesday that would target what he sees as frequent tobacco, marijuana and Spice use in the square and the nearby outdoor areas in front of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Traini spearheaded a nearly identical ordinance last fall, but it was voted down 8-3. Traini said he hopes the recent city election — three new Assembly members were elected — will give him more allies on the issue.
"If you know one thing about me, you should know I'm persistent as heck," Traini said.
It's already illegal to smoke marijuana in public, and Spice is an illegal substance, but tobacco smoking or vaping is allowed in Town Square. Traini said he doesn't think people should be smoking anything in the square.
"The mayor is trying what he can with the water fountain," Traini said. "This is another segment of what needs to be done down there."
City law already bans smoking in seating areas of outdoor arenas, stadiums and amphitheaters, and Traini's ordinance argues Town Square — with a small stepped seating area — should fall under that definition.
Assembly member Bill Evans, who chairs the city's public safety committee and heard the update on Town Square Park at his committee meeting this week, voted against Traini's measure last year and said he hasn't changed his mind.
He said he's "all for" finding ways to discourage activities like camping or drug use in the square. But he said a blanket ban on smoking would also affect law-abiding citizens who want to legally smoke outside.
"I don't think anybody is realistically concerned about smoking cigarettes outdoors," Evans said. "I think this would be a way to move people out of that area who happen to be smoking, and it happens to be we don't want them in the park anyway."