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News: Skateparks Come to San Diego

[A slightly different version of this article was published in the San Diego music zine, Slamm. It is reproduced here with permission.]

The ply laminate board is perched on the lip. The nose drops, and the rock-hard urethane wheels gain speed, carrying the rider up the opposite wall and several feet into the air. That was the scene in October as Tony Hawk, the Wayne Gretzky of vert skateboarding, christened the new skatepark in Escondido.

After being left for dead in the early-1980s, skateparks are making a comeback, and it's community activism and local governments that are bringing them back. Over the last several years, dozens of public skateparks have been built across the state, often tacked onto existing parks amid the softball fields and swing sets. Gone are the privately owned monstrosities, a victim of lawsuits and staggeringly high liability insurance costs.

This new breed of skatepark, generally more low key than its predecessors, has yet to have a single lawsuit filed against them. In addition, new legislation to take effect at the beginning of the year adds skateboarding to an existing list of hazardous recreation activities, such as tree climbing and mountain biking. By acknowledging that skateboarding can be hazardous, the government is putting the responsibility back on the skaters themselves, making it far more difficult for them to sue over injuries obtained in public skateparks. With the threat of litigation reduced, local governments are much more receptive to the idea of public parks.

After decades of spending tax dollars on tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and basketball hoops, civic leaders are finally starting to realize that skateboarders deserve a piece of the pie. "Skateboarding is a legitimate athletic endeavor, and we need to provide an adequate facility to give our kids a safe place to skate--it's just that simple," remarked San Diego 2nd District Councilmember Byron Wear, a leading proponent of a skatepark in Ocean Beach.

San Diego county has always been a hotbed of skateboarding activity. The most important technological innovation, the urethane skateboard wheel, which replaced clay and steel wheels, was developed by an Encinitas resident. The Carlsbad Skatepark was the first of its kind in the 1970s, and the aforementioned Tony Hawk also hails from Carlsbad. San Diego also hosted the 1997 ESPN X-Games, whose several skating events both reflected the popularity of the sport and raised its national profile even further. Unfortunately, since the closing of the privately run skateparks in the 1980s, only two skateparks have been available in San Diego, in Kearny Mesa and Encinitas. Both parks are run by the YMCA.

The new skatepark located in Escondido's Kit Carson Park is the first publicly run park to be built in San Diego county. The park features a halfpipe, a street course, and a six-foot bowl and opened to the public in late November. The North County facility is supervised, with helmets and pads required. In addition, skaters will be charged a membership and a fee to ride.

In OB, they are taking a different tack. Current plans call for a two-fold facility--an unsupervised entry-level street course without any memberships or charges and a separate supervised area that features more advanced elements for the experienced skater who wants a more challenging ramp and bowl area. The latter will require membership and safety equipment.

"We are adamant that at least part of the facility be free of charge, open to the public so that skaters can enjoy their chosen sport just like any other kid who wants to go to a public park to play ball, at their convenience for as long or as little as they want," says Mike Ryan of the Ocean Beach Skatepark Committee.

For Ryan, it all started a decade ago when a neighbor kid was prohibited from riding his skateboard around their apartment complex, when other kids were allowed to roller-skate. Eventually, Ryan's interest in helping give kids a place to skate led to him organizing skateboard contests for the YMCA. Some of the ramps he built for these contests are still in use today in the Kearny Mesa park.

It's been an uphill battle for Ryan and other supporters of the OB park with controversy centering around the proposed location of the park. The two proposed sites are Robb Field and Dusty Rhodes Park, located across the street from each other, where I-8 feeds into Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. According to the parks and recreation department, Robb Field is an active sports park, designed for organized mostly team sports, such as soccer and rugby, and the only remaining land at Robb Field has already been earmarked for a new rugby field. Therefore, the administrators of Robb Field want to see the skatepark built across the street in Dusty Rhodes Park.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever easy for those trying to get a skatepark built. Just when they thought that Dusty Rhodes Park would be the perfect site for the skatepark, a group of homeowners came forward to protest the Dusty Rhodes location. The OB Skatepark was caught in limbo. Currently, the city is conducting an independent assessment of both sites and is expected to reach a decision by January.

A new dynamic was added last month when a 23-year-old skateboarder, Brandon Silveira, died of injuries sustained when he lost control, while downhill skateboarding on Lowell Street (Silveira was not wearing a helmet at the time). Silveira's father has pledged his total support to do whatever it takes to get the skatepark completed. Still, the waters have only become more cloudy. A group of San Diego Police officers is now pushing for a new law similar to existing laws regarding bicycles that would require skateboarders to wear helmets.

Elsewhere in the county, plans are being developed for skateparks in Imperial Beach, Santee, and Carlsbad. The IB park is going ahead with the blessings and cooperation of the city--a site has already been approved for an indoor park with ramps and a street course. The Santee plans call for progressive skate pockets--rather than building a single park, park designer Steve Rose's plans call for three separate areas, with each phase being a different level of difficulty.

The Santee skatepark has had the added advantage of corporate sponsorship. Santee-based Gullwing Trucks, a leading manufacturer of skateboard trucks, has made a donation of almost $3,000, on behalf of the now-defunct El Cajon Skatepark Committee. "I feel really good about Santee moving forward on this, following in the footsteps of a city like Temecula, who has taken a a proactive stance in getting a first-rate skating facility built for their kids," says Walt Teidge of Gullwing Trucks.

Getting a public skatepark built is a long arduous task, but with the hard work of community activists and increased exposure from high-profile events like the X-Games and MTV's Sports-Music Festival, slowly things are starting to happen. Maybe we'll soon be hearing about top pro skateboarders, winning tournaments and helping to open new skateparks, who learned how to ride at the Ocean Beach Public Skatepark.

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Nose Wheelie, except where noted otherwise, was written and created by Chris Sturhann.
Copyright © 1997 Chris Sturhann