Skaters Build Skatepark

Claremont, California enjoys the labors of a few of its skaters.

For years the typical letter to TransWorld SKATEboarding has complained of sucky scenes where there’s nowhere to skate and the cops hate skaters. The situation seems nearly uniform, regardless of the size or location of the town or city or metropolis. The fact is, skaters have always had a hard time trying to skate stuff that wasn’t built for them, and unless we do something about it, the scenario won’t change.

In most cases, the solution is simple: activate, motivate, organize–change the system and make it work for you.

That’s the short answer; it’s successful for some, not for others. Success depends on how receptive a city government is to the idea of a public skatepark, and it depends a great deal on the resolve of the local skaters to see the project through.

All the way through.

So many diligent efforts to establish public parks result in less-than-perfect results. After months of petitioning, deliberation, voting, and designing, cities usually award the job of constructing the parks to the lowest bidder–contractors with little or no experience building skateparks. This is a new endeavor for most cities, and they need the guidance and input of local skaters at every step–especially on-site during construction, and at every step until the concrete cures. The efforts and investment of a community can be fouled by one man and his trowel.

A successful public skatepark project requires skater involvement at every level. Skateboarders of Claremont, California realized this, and refused to allow their park to be ruined by people who cared less about the project than they did. So they organized themselves, sought the help of the local teen council, and approached the city with their idea.

That was in July 1995. Last December the 7,000-square-foot Claremont Skatepark opened to the public–a free, concrete collection of banks, rails, and ledges. It was a time-consuming, often frustrating, back-breaking effort, but it happened. And now the skaters of Claremont (and not just the ones who worked on the skatepark project) have somewhere to skate–free from hassle, and free of charge.

The City of Claremont has addressed the need for youth programs by establishing its youth activities center, which sponsors athletic and counseling programs for young people. When the skaters approached the city with the idea for a skatepark, they formed a 22-member Teen Skateboard Committee (TSC). The committee began by working with local law enforcement officials on the problems skaters face, like excessive harassment and prejudice from police officers, and the fact that they had nowhere to ride. “That was one of our main arguments when we went to city council,” says TSC member Matt Kramer. “We were like, ‘There’re basketball courts everywhere, softball fields, soccer fields, and all sorts of other stuff, but there’s no place for us.’ They listened to us and thought it was reasonable.”

The committee helped bridge the gap between city officials and local skaters by showing that the skaters were willing to resolve issues surrounding skateboarding through dialogue. “I think that’s really what helped it skatepark project,” says Claremont Director of Human Services Dick Guthrie. “It was generated from the teen center that the city council and the community have already invested in. It came in a process that the council respects, because it came from a group of young people who were in a committee forum, that had already given good thought to it, and that had come up through the commission structure.”

Having established its credibility, the Teen Skateboard Committee pushed for a public skatepark, and eventually won the support of the city council. “The Teen Skateboard Committee made the decision that they would help raise the funds for it,” says Guthrie. “That just really floored people. It was symbolic, originally, because we hadn’t raised the first dollar at that point. But it made it possible for the council to say to the community at large, ‘Look, it’s not kids coming to us for a handout.’ They’re saying, ‘We’re planning and designing this thing, and we’re gonna help fundraise for this. We’re a partner in this.'”

The Claremont Teen Center provided a location and an organization to manage the proposed park, but the city council still had to hold formal hearings before it could approve the project. “The reality is that on a citywide basis, in everything we do, someone’s gonna stand up and yell, ‘Don’t do that,'” says Guthrie. The night that the City Council was to vote on the skatepark, opponents came to speak against the idea. “It turns out that they are primarily the same nay-sayers who complain about everything that we do. It was the typical, ‘What’s the liability? What about the noise? All these guys are hoodlums.’ The whole bit.”

The last to speak at those hearings was TSC member David Goldman. “When David got up and spoke, he just walked up to the mic and laid them all down,” says Guthrie. “He opened his mouth and the council melted because they were supporting it anyway, and to have a young person stand up and say, ‘We need this. Don’t treat us any differently than you would treat anybody else,’ just clinched it.”

The skaters of Claremont also had the law on their side. Last year the California State Assembly passed AB1296, a law that limits the liability a city assumes in building a skateboard park. That law was a result of lobbying efforts by the International Association of Skateboard Companies and the tens of thousands of skaters who wrote letters to their representatives at the State Capitol.

Guthrie points to another trend that favors the idea of public skateparks: “There’s a movement in cities now across the country to stop, call a time out, and do a full plan about what we ought to be doing for kids and for families. We happened to be at the early part of that curve. The message is that you can’t do this stuff unless you have young people involved in the decision-making process.”

With the park approved, the skaters still had to raise 125,000 dollars to build it. Skateboard Committee member Matt Kramer wrote 350 letters to companies and individuals to solicit donations, and included a letter of support from the mayor, police chief, and other community leaders. “It was to say, ‘Please pay attention to this request, it’s very serious. The Claremont Community Foundation is the custodian of the fund, so people can take the tax write-off,'” says Guthrie. “But of the letters, Matt’s was certainly the most compelling. It was very direct: ‘This is our dream, this is what we want to do, and this is how we’re gonna do it.'”

Contributions to the skatepark fund came from all members of the community, individuals, local businesses, Claremont College, and corporations like Vans, Tum Yeto, and Pepsi. The Teen Skateboard Committee raised 28,500 dollars, and the city added the rest from its own park-development fund and Los Angeles County parks-and-recreation grants.

With the financing worked out, they then had to find a suitable location. “That was easy,” says Guthrie. “Next to the youth activities center we had an acre and a half of land that was vacant parkland that bordered the high school, so it was a perfect location.”

Not all cities have the perfect location ready and waiting for a skatepark to be built on it. Guthrie cites the example of nearby Pomona, California, where the city was considering building a skatepark on land in the outskirts of town: “That’s not where the skaters are–the skaters are in downtown Pomona. So I think the real issue is location. You want the skatepark to be accessible to the skaters, so you need to be where the skaters are or can get to. The public, particularly older people, have this view of skateboarding as a rogue sport. They don’t understand it because they don’t really see it. So I think it’s the skatepark successful when it’s visible to the public, so t
hey can begin to understand and enjoy it.

“A lot of cities start off saying, ‘Let’s try to find the best place,’ and then neighbors say, ‘I don’t want that in my backyard.’ And if they end up with a park, they stick it out at the end of the interstate or something. You’ve got to fight through that. It’s really important that, early on, the city and the community get committed to the right place for it to be.”

For the park design, the TSC worked with skatepark designers Purkiss Rose, a skatepark development company located in Los Angeles. Based on the four-foot height restriction set by the city council, feedback from the skaters, and the allotted budget, Steve Rose developed the park design through a series of meetings and revisions with the skaters. When the skaters were happy, the City Council approved it, and the project was ready to go.

There was a problem, though. Los Angeles County hadn’t released the funds it promised to Claremont, and Guthrie and the city council fought for over a year before the grant was paid in Fall 1997. “We put the sign up on the site in December as an act of faith, to let them the skaters know that this thing is gonna happen,” says Guthrie. “It was a ‘coming soon’ sign.”

The project went up for bid soon afterward, and as cities are required to do, the Claremont City Council awarded it to the lowest bidder. “Two days after the bid came in, the bidder called,” says Guthrie. “They’d made a clerical error, and our rules are that we have to throw everything out and start over again. We had actually set a groundbreaking date for February 16, and we went ahead and had it.”

After two more bidding rounds, the contract was finally awarded, and construction began in June. “Between the groundbreaking in February and actual start of construction, it was a long wait,” says Guthrie.

Having worked so hard to see this project through, the TSC decided not to leave the most crucial stage, the actual construction, to someone who’d never seen–let alone built–a skatepark. The contractor agreed to hire TSC members to work with his construction crew, offer feedback, and help explain design elements. “They the construction crew did most of the work,” admits TSC member Nick Hardy. “We just did little grunt work that they didn’t want to do–move wood and dig trenches. We dug about five miles’ worth of trenches.”

They also changed the park’s design as it was constructed. Kramer says that the builders were open to modifying the park as they went, and that they relied on the skaters’ feedback and instructions during the building. “After the final blueprints, we made some changes,” he says. “We caught mistakes that the construction workers made. They don’t know anything about skateparks, and we don’t know anything about construction, so we just kinda bounced off each other.”

“When the time came to actually start building, they basically redesigned the park,” says Guthrie. “They looked at the plan all chalked out at the site, and the first thing they found was that the pyramid was too close to the lip.”

Many other problems became apparent once the blueprint plan was marked out on site. “More than half of the park was in one corner, so we spread it out,” says Kramer, explaining how different a park can look on paper.

“The original design did not have any coping at all at the edge of the bowl,” says Guthrie. “Immediately, the day that they started chalking everything out, they raised it as a major issue. And the contractor’s going, ‘Well that’s gonna cost 8,000 dollars.’ And we’re all going, ‘Well this is stupid, because you’re simply gonna ruin the concrete, and the whole purpose of it is to be able to go up to the edge and grind it.’ One of the reasons that we wanted them the skaters to work the entire project was the technical advice.”

The change would cost 4,000 dollars, but Guthrie says repairing the ground-up concrete in a few years would cost much more, so the city allocated the funds. “They were absolutely right,” he says of the skaters’ insistence on adding metal coping to the park. “They knew what they were talking about. We don’t skate, so we wouldn’t have thought it through.”

But the park wasn’t exclusively designed for heavy-duty sessioning by Claremont’s more experienced skaters. TDC member Nik Westman says, “One of the main things we were trying to emphasize is that we had something for every skill level–a low rail, a medium rail, and a tall one. All the transitions are like that–there’s some that are practically like quarterpipes, and some that are just little hills.”

Through all the problems, delays, and red tape they faced in realizing the dream of a free public skatepark in Claremont, Kramer says the most difficult part was just waiting for the concrete to cure: “The skatepark was there, and it looked skateable, but we got paid to sit and make sure people didn’t skate it–especially our friends. That was kind of hard.”

For all they endured throughout the process, the Teen Skateboard Committee members were granted the first official ride on the skatepark they literally built. In early October, before the public was allowed to touch it, Matt Kramer, Dave Goldman, Nick Hardy, Paul Skelly, and Nik Westman got to session the pyramid, bowl, three rails, and several banks and ledges that comprise the Claremont Skatepark. The park officially opened a few days later, with a ceremony attended by about 250 people, including 150 skaters and several pros. During the dedication speeches, each member of the Teen Skateboard Committee spoke and received a plaque from the City of Claremont decorated with a piece of rebar. The skaters also awarded Dick Guthrie a skateboard for all of his efforts.

A city official who has seen several civic building projects move from inception to dedication, Guthrie is a solid supporter of the concept of municipal skateparks, despite lingering concerns over liability. “We’ve adopted the Huntington Beach California approach, where you don’t enforce it pad rule,” he says. “It’s a matter of personal responsibility. We have a lot of folks in the community calling us and complaining, saying that they want it enforced. So we’re saying, ‘We’ve gone to the city attorney, and we’ve gone to our insurance carrier, and they say the onus has to be on the user, not on the city to enforce.’ I will guarantee it will be our busiest city park facility, without a doubt.”

More important than the need for a safe skating facility that the park satisfies, says Guthrie, is the process of involving the youth of a community in projects like this: “I’ve known these guys since they were thirteen, when we started this thing. I look at them now at sixteen and seventeen, and these are the five most influential and well-known people in Claremont, easily. I get constant phone calls, and notes from people writing me who have referenced them by name because they read their names in the paper. They’ve spoken to the League of California Cities Conference, and I think if you asked any of them three years ago if they would be able to stand on a public stage and make a speech, it wouldn’t even have been in their frame of reference. The skateboard park is what they’ve started with. We support the facility, and think it’s a great addition, but for us, this is what it was all about–a way to get them involved.”

The skatepark and the notoriety of Claremont’s Teen Skateboard Committee have continued to attract national attention. “A week doesn’t go by that I don’t get calls from three or four cities,” says Guthrie. “They want you to come talk to them, and we have a whole packet of stuff we send them now. At every conference for cities I’ve been to in the last two years, the biggest attended session is always on skateboarding, whether it’s a professional conference for people like department directors, to the elected-officials conferences like the League Of California Cities–everybody’s trying to get into it.”

Not all efforts to build a public skatepark are successful, and the model suggest
ed by the Claremont example may not work everywhere, as each town has its own unique political climate. But it does demonstrate what the will of a few skaters and at least one like-minded city official can accomplish.

For information on public skateparks, check the following Web resources:

International Association of Skateboard Companies (IASC)

Consolidated Skateboards (The Plan)

Team Pain