Feature Article - January/February 2002
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Rolling Ahead

New skate parks and inline facilities learn from past mistakes

By Stacy St. Clair


Once upon a time, a benevolent park district decided to bestow a skate park upon its youngest residents. But not just any skate park—a $500,000 facility that the skaters themselves helped design.

The kids clamored for quarter pipes. The officials gave it to them.

The kids demanded rails and ramps. The officials granted their wishes.

The skaters cheered. The parents showered the district with praise. The officials congratulated themselves for being so incredibly magnanimous.

But no one lived happily ever after.

After planning the park and spending a half-million dollars, the district hired a local contractor to ultimately design and build the facility. The contractor—while knowledgeable about engineering and construction codes—knew nothing about the sport of skating.

When the park opened, the surface was completely wrong. The skaters' wheels couldn't get enough grip to make turns. The ramp surfaces were so rough, it caused bruises and abrasions all over the kids' bodies.

Word quickly spread. The fairy-tale park was a nightmare, further proof that adults don't understand the wildly popular sport or its athletes. The kids returned to sidewalks and community stairs they had ridden before the park's creation. As always, the local merchants and pedestrians complained and begged officials to do something about the "nuisance."


The park district, however, could do nothing. It had spent an exorbitant amount of money to build the skate park and didn't have any left to remedy the problem.

The park, once the Taj Mahal of good intentions, became a $500,000 monument to poor planning. The skaters, once civic-minded teens, resumed their positions as public pests.

And only the local contractor lived happily ever after.

"That's really the biggest mistake cities make," says Heidi Lemmon, executive director of the Skate Park Association of the United States of America. "You can't have 12-year-olds planning your parks. You need someone with experience."

As such, skate park and inline rink designers and architects are sprouting up all over the country. Once concentrated mostly in California and Florida, they're opening at a rapid rate in traditionally non-skateboard states like Minnesota, Maine and Pennsylvania.

Firms nationwide, however, face an uphill battle. Park districts and municipalities still remain reluctant to hire an outside architect because they think their public works department or local concrete pourers can do the same job for less money.

"They're wrong," Lemmon says. "An experienced firm can actually save you money."

And she's talking big savings. Lemmon estimates a skate park architect can save as much as 50 percent on a facility. Without prompting, she rattles of the names of three $500,000 California parks that could have been built for $250,000 or less.

"We're wasting a lot of money on some awful parks," Lemmon says.

She's not alone in her views. Tony Hawk, the skating world's answer to Michael Jordan, started a foundation to help build well-designed parks after seeing the horrid, yet pricey, parks throughout the country.

"A city gets an idea to build a park and they just sort of go off without supervision," Hawk told Big Brother, a skateboarding magazine, earlier this year. "I just have been skating these really [awful] parks. And I just can't believe it, really. It saddens you that here's this city putting all this effort in for the kids that want to skate, and they don't get any direction. Some cement contractor claims to have built something that resembles a skate park and they get the job because they underbid everyone and then there's this terrible thing that costs 200 Grand. And no one wants to skate it."