The broken concrete fountain in the middle of Anchorage's Town Square Park will be torn down within the next two weeks, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Wednesday, to rid the square of what Berkowitz called a "barrier and a hiding spot" for people engaging in illegal activity.
In a news conference at the back of the fountain, where people often curl up in blankets or sleeping bags, Berkowitz said the city will also try to improve the square by boosting the number of police officers patrolling it.
His announcement came amid a fresh wave of concern about drug use and disorder in the square, a green space and plaza in the heart of downtown Anchorage.
"Town Square ought to be a place that is safe and welcoming for everyone," Berkowitz said, standing at a lectern set on a balding patch of dirt and grass.
Demolishing the fountain is expected to cost about $50,000, said Susanne Fleek-Green, Berkowitz's chief of staff. Berkowitz said the move will mark one step in an ongoing evaluation of public safety in the park — park regulars, including teens and homeless adults, are among those saying it's dominated by drug use.
The fountain, a stained, block-like fixture, has become one of the more obvious symbols of neglect in Town Square. It was dedicated in June 1998 to the memory of Dick Silberer, a prominent Anchorage car dealer and banker who died of cancer in 1996 at age 62. Silberer's family donated $150,000 to the city toward the construction of the fountain, according to city records.
At the time, the fountain was envisioned as a tranquil addition to Town Square. The square was designed as an urban oasis, sheltering visitors from the busy streets nearby.
With the fountain suffering from clogs and other plumbing and electrical problems, water hasn't flowed in it in years. Longtime advocates for the preservation of the square say the fountain does more harm than good.
"It squats there like a great toad," said John Blaine, a close friend of Ruth Moulton's, the community activist who fought to preserve the park in the 1980s. He said he was overjoyed at the news that it would be torn down.
Silberer's widow, Eunice Silberer, didn't return a message conveyed through a family representative.
The director of the city's parks and recreation department, John Rodda, said the design of the fountain has posed a maintenance nightmare for years. He said it "really started to give us fits" about three years ago, and the city hasn't maintained it since.
With the fountain gone, Rodda said the area will be flattened out and landscaped. A stage for concerts or other events could be set up there, he said.
Berkowitz said years of discussion, including a public design workshop in the square two years ago and an analysis by the police department, led to the administration's decision. He said the park should be opened up so people can see from one side to the other — and the consensus is that the fountain needs to go.
"This fountain does have history, but it has become something it wasn't intended to be," Berkowitz said.
Dianne Holmes, a longtime community activist and Town Square Park advocate, questioned Wednesday whether the administration had the legal authority to order the fountain's removal. She pointed to city planning documents that say major design changes to the park need to be approved by the city planning and zoning commission.
Fleek-Green said that's not the case here. Taking out the fountain doesn't change the park's use as a gathering place, Fleek-Green said. She also said there are no plans to level the park's hills, which would trigger a more intensive public vetting.
At the news conference, Berkowitz was flanked by Anchorage police Capt. Ken McCoy, and two downtown business officials: Jamie Boring, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, which manages parking downtown.
McCoy said the Anchorage Police Department would be spending more time on the park. Boring and Halcro plugged efforts to draw more people downtown and improve security. Boring highlighted the recent launch of a downtown security call number, which he said people can call to report non-emergencies. Halcro plugged upcoming promotions from the parking authority, like giving people an hour free to park downtown during the lunch hour and fill-up air for low tires.
Of the group of regulars in Town Square who camp, drink and use drugs, Berkowitz — who chose Town Square for his inauguration nearly 11 months ago — said his administration is working to find other places for people to spend the night and get help for substance abuse.
"Town Square shouldn't be a hostel," Berkowitz said.
After the news conference ended and most of the TV cameras left, the park slowly filled back up with people. On a concrete wall across the square from the news conference, two park regulars — Nate Bowers and Ivan Arias, both 17 — sat on their longboard skateboards.
Bowers and Arias said Town Square is the go-to meet-up spot for their friends, who like to start in the square and longboard on Anchorage trails.
Bowers said he doesn't have a problem with plans to take out the fountain.
"I mean the fountain, right as of now, it's just an eyesore, because all people do is graffiti it, and it doesn't work," Bowers said. "If it worked, yeah, that'd be cool."
On the other hand, Arias said: "It's a good windblock." On gusty days, Bowers, Arias and other friends have sheltered behind the lip of the fountain to play Magic, a card game.
A lot of people go behind the fountain wall to smoke, but most of the time, people sleep there, Bowers said.
Bowers and Arias said they were far more upset about police giving $70 fines to people who longboard through the square, and confiscating the longboards.
But others in the park were dismayed to hear about the plans for the fountain.
"It's like taking down the Fourth Avenue (Theater) downtown," said Richard Hunt, 28, sitting on the wall and smoking a cigarette.
A plaque on the side of the fountain marks the dedication date as June 5, 1998. The inscription talks about Silberer's commitment to beautifying the city.
"Dream of what can be, and it shall be," one of the last lines says.