Facility Profile - September 2007
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Skating in the Shadow of Palm Trees

Downtown Ice in San Jose, Calif.

By Peter Hercky

he downtown scene could be right out of a Christmas season Hollywood movie. It's mid-December, and shoppers are hurriedly wandering in and out of quaint and trendy shops, which have been appropriately adorned with festive holiday decorations. The Salvation Army Santa is joyously ringing his bell, and in the background, one hears carols being sung by a choir. Approaching an open area, the ice rink comes into view, complete with master skaters performing reverse figure-eights and novices holding on to the railing as they work to gain their ice-legs. Were it not for the palm trees and the lightweight attire, this scene might easily be mistaken for New York, Chicago, Minneapolis or Boston. It is, in fact, San Jose, Calif., where the temperature ranges from an average of 50 degrees in January to approximately 70 degrees in July.

Not exactly ideal conditions for an ice rink.

Yet despite the temperatures, the citizens of San Jose have been donning ice skates for the past 14 years and taking part in a winter activity that's generally reserved for those colder locales. Along with its unorthodox location, this rink is also unique in that it is erected just after Thanksgiving and dismantled by mid-January.

"No one seems to remember how the idea was developed," said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association. "Our mission has always been to help the downtown merchants in attracting shoppers to the district, and an ice rink seemed like an attractive idea."

The San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA), which was founded in 1986, is a nonprofit, membership-based organization. It represents business and property owners and strives to enhance the vitality and livability of downtown San Jose.

Since its inception, the rink had been located in four or five venues, including several parking lots and other open areas throughout the downtown area. Every few years the rink would need to be relocated because that previous year's property was slated for development.

"Although it complicated matters, we were happy to move the rink. After all, development is at the core of the association's mission," said SJDA President Janis Schneider.

With increasing development and fewer appropriate locations available for situating the rink, the SJDA turned to the Mayor's Office for assistance. Then-Mayor Ron Gonzales thought placing the rink at the Circle of Palms plaza would be a boon to the area, but he also believed that the logistical problems seemed insurmountable.

The plaza sits atop a four-story underground garage in a pristine area of the city. It's surrounded by the Art Museum, the five-star Fairmont Hotel and the world headquarters of the Knight Ridder Publishing Company. Thirty-two palm trees dot the perimeter of the plaza, and the Seal of the State of California is emblazoned in its center.

The decision was made to permanently situate the "nomadic rink" at the plaza in July 2004. However, the rink needed to be in place and ready for use in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. That's a five-month window to design, engineer, plan logistics, manufacture and install a project of this complexity and scope—a process that would normally require 12 months to complete.

"We called Mike Clayton at Ice Rink Events to tell him about the 'great' news—a circular-shaped rink with 32 palm trees in the middle," Knies said. "I remember a deafening silence on the other end."

Along with the shortened timeframe for installation, the rink's new location presented additional challenges. First, the rink shape was changed from the classic rectangle to a circle—actually two circles, one within the other. This radical change in shape demanded an entirely new line of thinking, with the traditional layout of the rink cooling floor now required to freeze a 120-foot diameter center circle, plus a 12-foot wide outer circular track.

Secondly, the rink was to be erected on an uneven plaza, with as much as a 2-foot change in elevation. Thirdly, luxury automobiles would be parked in the garage beneath the rink. Would melting ice and other water leakage pose a problem? Finally, the rink had to be designed to accommodate four tree-areas with eight palms in each area.