Once a week, Colleen Neel strolls through Water Works Park picking up any trash she can spot.
And sure enough, every time she finds some used hypodermic needles left out on the ground where anyone could step on them.
“I found four last Tuesday night,” said Neel, a member of the Central Park Neighborhood Association. “I usually find a couple every week.”
For anyone who’s lived near the old central Vancouver park in recent years, it’s no secret that the place has seen better days. Home to Vancouver’s largest well — Water Station 1 — and the Swift Skate Park, the wooded park just north of Clark College has become a well-known hot spot for violent crime, vandalism, drug dealing and illegal camping in recent years.
But despite its flaws, Water Works Park seems to be slowly turning a new leaf in 2015, thanks to a grass-roots movement to clean the place up and make it safer and more inviting for families in the area.
Since last fall, Neel has led a committee of residents from five local neighborhoods — Rose Village, Maplewood, Central Park, Fourth Plain Village and Harney Heights — who are determined to take care of the park.
“There are four low-income neighborhoods around this park,” Neel said. “Just having a park in their neighborhood that’s safe and available for them to use is really important.”
Starting this month, the neighborhoods have picked up the pace on scheduling events designed to attract more children and families to the park.
The group came together shortly after a teenage boy was assaulted at Water Works about a year ago and rushed to a hospital emergency room. Little more than half a year after getting the ball rolling, Neel says she’s starting to notice some real signs of progress.
“Now, picking up the garbage is just a maintenance issue,” she said. “Before, it was just too much.”
Looking to deter crime, police have also stepped up patrols, Neel said.
“They’ve really made it a priority to hit Water Works Park,” she said. “We’re not trying to move the homeless people out. We’re just trying to get services there so it’s not the armpit that it is.”
Getting the city on board with the effort hasn’t been easy, said Norma Watson, the president of the Central Park Neighborhood Association. Instead, the neighborhoods have decided to take ownership of the property.
“We are willing to come over and check this thing every day if that’s what it comes to,” Watson said. “I just want to see the neighborhoods that are adjacent to the park begin to think of this as their park. That’s all.”
To the Public Works Department, the park’s primary role is providing potable water to some 230,000 people, said Loretta Callahan, the agency’s spokeswoman. After all, most of the site is occupied by water production facilities that serve as the core piece of Vancouver’s water system.
Water Station 1 supplies about 2 billion gallons of water a year, roughly one-fourth of Vancouver’s water supply. This year, work began on a decade-long project to expand the facility at an estimated cost of $40 million.
“The site has a well-pumping capacity of 34 million gallons per day — more than twice the production capacity as the next largest well field in the Vancouver water system,” Callahan said in an email to The Columbian. “It is such a major supplier of water that on some days water produced at this station comes out of a tap in Cascade Park.”
The first major stage of construction will start next year, as crews add a new infiltration basin, a booster pump station, generators and a fuel tank south of the skate park. Later on, they’ll begin tearing down the park’s aging amphitheater to make room for a new reservoir and an elevated tank.
The new reservoir needs to go in that particular spot for a good reason, Callahan said. Vancouver has a gravity-based water system, and the amphitheater sits on the last elevated portion of the site that can accommodate the new structure while addressing seismic concerns.
Before it’s torn down, Neel, Watson and others in the area plan to make as much use of the amphitheater as they can. Last Friday, they began holding weekly movie nights, and they will continue through the end of August.
“We all just picked something that our heart was behind,” Neel said. “I just really wanted to show movies in the park, so we figured out a way.”
The committee hopes to work with the city on eventually finding a spot within the park for a new amphitheater, but it’s not likely they’ll make it work, Callahan said.
“The master plan does not anticipate construction of a new amphitheater, nor is there available room to construct a replacement on this utility site,” she said.
Furthermore, utility dollars cannot be spent on nonutility projects, like building an amphitheater, Callahan said.
Nonetheless, the goal of all city facilities is to be welcoming and safe, so the city supports the grass-roots effort, she said. And the committee members plan to stick with their cause for the long run, even if the park never gets another amphitheater.
A number of family-friendly events are scheduled at Water Works for the coming months. The list includes geocaching, a pet parade, bike safety lessons and craft workshops sponsored by Home Depot.
On Aug. 4, a group of parents and children gathered in the park to celebrate National Night Out. To open the event, they formed a circle and tossed a ball around from person to person, each taking turns sharing their vision of what needs to change to make the park a better place.
The ideas included things such as removing invasive plants, planting more trees, fixing the restrooms so they can stay open and sprucing up the skate park.
For Mark Maggiora, a Rose Village resident who runs a nonprofit that helps rebuild rundown neighborhoods, it was a perfect list of what should happen at Water Works in the coming years.
“That group identified everything and anything that needs to happen to reclaim this park,” Maggiora said. “The city really needs to step up and take care of those basic things.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in fixing up the park, though, is the restrooms, Neel said. The city closed them a while back due to severe vandalism.
“The key to turning that park around is having restrooms that work,” Neel said. “And if we can get that to happen, we can have events every weekend there.”