Skatepark a Go-Go

By Adam Sullivan

Three years ago, skaters in the San Diego area were fed up with a catch-22 that was driving them to extinction. The police were banning skating on the streets, and compensation came in the form of poorly designed skateparks. These parks could contain neither the bodies nor the interests of the skaters. Everybody was fed up, but nobody knew what to do-that is until Joe Pino and Glenn Wagner decided to take matters into their own hands. “We figured if we’re going to have to skateparks, we might as well make one we liked,” says Wagner. And so they did.

Following in the footsteps of guerrilla-made skateparks such as Portland’s Burnside and Philadelphia’s FDR, these two put together some friends and some concrete in an attempt to remedy the San Diego skateboarding dilemma. They found the perfect location tucked under an overpass at the bottom of Washington Street. “We figured the city would be stoked that we cleaned it up and put it to good use,” Pino recalls. Their rationale was sound. No houses nearby meant no bothered neighbors, the bridge would provide shade and protection from the elements, and the lot wasn’t likely to ever be developed. They didn’t have to worry about the noise, either, with the airport a mere 50 yards away. The park quickly came together, save for one important detail-they never got permission to build it.

At first everything was fine, and they had been skating for two months when the city finally caught wind. “They just shut us down,” Pino remembers. “They didn’t even want to hear what we had to say.” That’s when local skate-shop owner Ken Lewis offered to lend a hand. “The park had gotten the attention of the Mission Hills Town Council,” says Lewis. “So if we wanted to keep it, we had to strike while the iron was hot.”

Lewis was a bit more versed in dealing with bureaucracy, so he began sitting in at town-council meetings and doing the legwork, rallying skaters together to fight for their park. “Basically, it was wrong from the start, so we had to backtrack and do it all legally,” says Lewis. “Convincing the city that we were serious was a big part.”

Tum Yeto’s Tod Swank lent a hand, helping to convince the city that skateboarding was in fact a billion-dollar-plus annual industry, with successful companies like his own right under their noses. Once they realized that, the city agreed to give the park a chance-under their terms.

But the skatepark’s approval was just the first step in what turned out to be a long road of political obstacles. Lewis sat in at town-council meetings for the next four months, trying to show the community how the skatepark would be beneficial. AB 1296, California’s skater-friendly law that recognizes skateboarding as a hazardous activity, helped a great deal.

Once the skaters had the green light from the town councils, the city appointed a task force to investigate the matter further. Every permit and every plan had to be run through this task force before another obstacle could be tackled. It was a slow-moving process, but the skaters kept at it. Each meeting they participated in and every permit they got approved hacked another little piece away from the wall that stood in the way of their skatepark.

Local skater Tom Claypool was in charge of getting all the permits, a daunting task at best. There were permits for land use, permits for engineering, even permits for right of entry and encroachment removal. Little by little the list got smaller, as Claypool checked them off one by one.

Several meetings, three versions of blueprints, and a year and a half later, it came down to a matter of insurance. The city required the park be covered for an amount the skaters couldn’t possibly afford. Claypool began to work with the city attorney, and together they decided upon the proper insurance to use. “That was the last (political) hurdle,” Lewis says. “At least for now.”

With that out of the way, they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. They had the labor force ready to go, but even now there is still one issue that threatens both the completion and livelihood of the skatepark-funding. Banner space and fundraisers have brought in some money so far, but the Washington Street skaters still have a long road ahead of them-an unpaved one at that. “The alternative to coming up with the insurance money each year is to turn it (the park) over to the city and let them run it-which we don’t want to do,” says Lewis. “That’s something no one wants to talk about, because it’s not a pretty thing.”

In addition to the cost of the concrete and insurance, there are also the annual costs for maintenance and repairs, an estimated 20,000 dollars.

As of August 2002, a new section of the park was getting poured approximately once a week, which allows a few days open for “testing.” “Of course it’s great to be able to have private sessions like this,” Wagner admits. “But by pouring a little at a time, and skating each obstacle as it’s added, we can figure out how this park is going to flow and create better lines.”Wagner’s modesty is deceptive, though. The cement trucks that bring the magic mortar don’t come cheap, and the skaters have to save up for each pour with benefit shows, donations, and the like. “We use what money we have to pour, and we’re always working on getting some more,” says Claypool.

So far the park’s been surviving on the generosity of skate companies, local businesses, and concerned citizens like those in the park’s Mission Hills neighborhood who have all come forth to show their support. Donations have come in all shapes and sizes, from anonymous cash to piles of dirt and truckloads of concrete.

Despite all the setbacks, these skaters have remained focused on their goal. They know exactly what they want and have gone to great lengths to get it. They’ve even formed a nonprofit organization so that they could secede from the city council altogether, leasing the land directly from the city. This gives them a bit more freedom and a lot more responsibility. They don’t have to answer to the city council, but they must maintain the park themselves. In order to placate the city, the garbage, graffiti, and general appearance must be kept under control. “We’ll build the park, but everybody’s got to do their part,” says Pino. “It’s a community effort.”

Burnside and FDR, the founding fathers of this D.I.Y.-style skatepark, both have similar guidelines, with skaters maintaining the parks and keeping them clean.In addition to the responsibility, there are other things that will set the Washington Street Skatepark apart from the other parks in the San Diego area. “What makes this park unique is that we try to incorporate all types of skateboarding in the design,” says Claypool. This single element is precisely what will make Washington Street more appealing to a wider variety of skateboarder.

Though their hearts may be in the right place, nonskaters just don’t understand what makes a park good or bad. This usually results in poorly poured transitions and limited potential, adding up to a park that the skaters don’t want to skate. “There are so many different kinds of skaters down here working on this,” says Pino. “And they want to build what they want to ride.”

The park has myriad transitions, each a different shape and size. As it stands now, there are transitions up around the two center pillars, with the mandatory pyramid-with-rail in between. The far wall, bordering the old train tracks, is a rolling wave of tranny that varies from steep to vert, complete with parking-block coping. As an homage to their forefathers, they have inserted a deathbox into the five-foot section. A serpentine speed bump stretches across the park between these two sections. The wall that runs alongside Washington Street will hold up a lengthy quarterpipe, with a rounded O-vert section in the middle. The far end of the park will house a replica of a real backyard pool, a right-hand amoeba with a shallow end that washes out into the “street” course.

In addition to all that, t
his park will be a testing ground for unique obstacles, including an invention Wagner has dubbed “The Spine Splitter”: “We want to make something for everyone, but we also want to make some obstacles that are totally new. This place will be constantly evolving.” As long as there’s concrete, these guys will build.

Another concern of the park’s founders is that the park be completely free of charge. In contrast to the surrounding “public” parks’ costly fees, membership will simply consist of signing a waiver and assuming the responsibility of taking care of your park. “As long as people respect the park, there won’t be any problems,” says Wagner.

Overall, these skaters have gotten much more than they bargained for. “I never thought this much would happen,” reflects Pino. “What we started with was a temporary solution to a permanent problem.” But the good idea became contagious, and soon hundreds of San Diego skaters came flocking to the park to lend their support. Donating time, money, or materials, the San Diego skateboarding community came together just to have a place to skate. Looking at the impact this park has had, it’s clear that Joe and Glenn weren’t the only dissatisfied skaters in the area.

So what’s the moral of this story? Maybe that while this wasn’t the most legal way to do things, it did succeed in getting the city’s attention. And that, coupled with the perseverance of a handful of dedicated skaters, convinced the city that they were serious about a place to skate. Because the initial park was shut down, these guys have learned how to work within the system, rather that outside it. Lewis summarizes: “I think one thing we all got out of this experience was a harsh lesson in politics.”

Portland, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and now San Diego have all created “skateboarders’ skateparks.” It can happen in your town, too.