Rolling forward

Pub date April 20, 2010

By Adrian Castañeda

San Francisco’s Potrero del Sol Skatepark is often packed with skaterboarders, a testament to the sport’s popularity and to the dearth of places in the city where it’s legal to skate. But that will soon change with the city’s commitment to build two new skateparks: one in SoMa and the other in the Haight.

Both have been tentatively approved by the Board of Supervisors. But before any concrete is poured, the skaters will have to overcome budget crises, angry homeowners, and their own bad reputations, particularly in the Haight, where the proposed park has gotten caught up in the furor over vagrants and the proposed sit-lie ordinance.

San Francisco has long been a skateboarding hub, yet there’s always been friction with police, businesses, and everyday city life. Even though it’s legal, there just aren’t that many places to do it anymore, partially because the city and property owners routinely attach barriers to any surfaces that might be appealing to skaters.

Skateboarders, long accustomed to being ignored and disenfranchised, have responded in their usual DIY fashion, such as building a few obstacles in an empty parking lot under a freeway overpass. The city took notice of the demand and after three years of planning and meetings, the newest of San Francisco’s skate parks has finally been allotted the necessary funds to begin construction around the end of summer.

The Central Freeway Skate Park will be located in what is now a parking lot at the intersection of Duboce and Stevenson streets in the north Mission District area. With $2 million collected through the Central Freeway Corridor Housing and Transportation Improvement Act of 1999, which provides for the sale and lease of parcels of city land that were under the now-demolished freeway, officials plan to develop the park to eventually include basketball courts and a dog run.

Rich Hillis of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development said the city is considering a variety of improvements, but confirmed that “we think the skate park is the priority.” He attributes the park’s relatively unopposed approval to the demands of the city’s skaters and to the community as a whole. “They embraced the idea of a skatepark early on,” Hillis said of the forward-thinking residents of the area. He jokingly adds that the park should be named “Hornbeck Park” after Bryan Hornbeck, director of the San Francisco Skateboard Association. Hornbeck and his associates started the SFSA to push the city to build new parks designed with skaters in mind.

“San Francisco has to have a world-class skatepark,” Hornbeck said at one of the many skate events his group organizes. Hornbeck said the city has been receptive, working with skaters on the design of the park, but left SFSA to organize skaters and raise the funds. “It’s bake sale; it’s lemonade stand; it’s the best we can do,” Hornbeck said. “We’re not trying to take anything, we’re trying to make our own thing.”

Plans for the park, drawn up by notable skatepark design firm New Line Skateparks, are currently under review by civil engineers. After the plans are finalized, the project will be bid out to find a contractor. Tentative 3-D renderings have been online for months, sparking heated debate on skateboarding Web sites.

When the acclaimed Potrero del Sol Skatepark opened in 2008, many skaters felt that while it was well-designed and enjoyable, it didn’t have enough terrain that mimicked street riding. New Line has designed a number of skating plazas, most recently in Los Angeles. Its involvement gives many skaters hope that the new park will incorporate obstacles that represent the city’s rich street skating history.

But things are not moving as swiftly for the city’s other planned skate park, just beyond where Waller dead-ends at Stanyan in the Haight, which doesn’t have the same guaranteed funding stream. While bids for a design have been submitted, the Recreation and Park Department needs to get approval for $1 million–$2 million in construction funds before moving forward. The city proposed the 120,000-square-foot cul-de-sac at the end of Waller and next to SFPD’s Park Station after the original site near the Golden Gate Park horseshoe pits was found to be too small and lacking the necessary sight-lines for safety. But according to some residents groups, the parking lot is less safe for youths.

Citing police incident reports, Lena Emmery, president of the Cole Valley Improvement Association, told us the Waller park would be in an area with a high number of reported assaults and drug arrests and would add to noise pollution. “This location puts a skateboard park too close to a dense residential area, as well as some businesses that would be negatively impacted by the noise from the skaters,” she wrote via e-mail.

While the lot is occasionally used for bicycle safety classes and overflow parking at Kezar Stadium, it sits empty most of the year, although a farmers market will hold its grand opening there April 28. Will Keating, a Waller Street resident and skateboarder who works on Haight Street, is excited about the proposed park. He disagrees with claims that the park would be a negative impact on his neighborhood. “I hear homeless mutants going crazy outside my window every night, I would much prefer skateboards,” Keating said of the current noise pollution.

The Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, which is leading the charge for a sit-lie ordinance, conducted a survey on its Web site and found that many of its visitors feel the skatepark would increase noise and safety problems in the Haight. Visitors to the site also said the lot would be better used as a farmers market. Yet city officials say the two are not mutually exclusive, and early designs for the project are said to include a large public plaza adjacent to the park intended for community events.

“We realize this is going to be a multiuse space,” said Nick Kinsey, property manager for the Recreation and Park Department. “Throughout San Francisco there are thousands and thousands of skateboarders but only two places where it is legal to skate.” Kinsey called the park is “a done deal,” citing a 2007 ordinance introduced by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi that mandates the department build a skatepark on the cul-de-sac.

Kent Uyehara, merchant chair for the HAIA and owner of FTC skateshop on Haight, said the community’s fears about pedestrian safety are understandable, but that fears of increased violence and drug use are irrational. “If you can’t have a skate park next to a police station, then basically you are saying you can’t have it.”

If the city enacts the sit-lie ordinance, which Uyehara supports, it would be easy to imagine that a skate park would be a magnet for homeless and others looking to escape police harassment. But Uyehara is adamant that the park would not become a haven for Haight Street refugees. “Skateboarders self-police their own areas,” he said. “We’re not trying to kick the homeless out,” he added. “We’re trying to make the neighborhood attractive for everyone, whether they’re buying something or not.”

Uyehara is no stranger to opposition. When his shop first moved to the Haight in 1994, he had to deal with threats from residents and a neighborhood organization, similar to the one he is now a part of, because of what skateboarding represented to them. Since then skateboarding and his business have prospered, and FTC now has four locations worldwide. “For a city that hosted the X-Games, it’s pathetic how skateboarding has been treated.”

Uyehara says the Waller park, along with the Central Freeway and Potrero del Sol parks, are part of a plan developed by the San Francisco Skate Task Force, created in 2002 by then-Sup. Gavin Newsom to address the growing friction between the city and its skateboard population. The task force envisioned “a series of five parks located in a star pattern, and one in the middle of the city, [that] would make it possible for users to easily get to a park within at least two miles of their home.”

All the meetings and fundraising will be in vain if the park is poorly designed and built, said Jake Phelps, editor-in-chief of Thrasher Magazine. He says locals should design the park “so we have no one to blame but ourselves,” and avoid another flawed park like Crocker Amazon in Sunnydale where, he says, “the fence costs more than the skatepark.” Unimpressed with preliminary designs for the park on Duboce, the notoriously blunt Phelps says, “They’re going to come to our town, drop a turd, and leave.”

The veteran skater is wary of “landscape designers” with grandiose ideas. “There are people who get too involved. They don’t skate. Who are they to tell anybody what it is?” Newer skateparks are too crowded with obstacles trying to please all different kinds of skaters, he said. Instead, he urges a simple design similar to the streets of downtown. “The whole idea of skating is being utilitarian with your environment.” Regardless of the design, he believes it won’t have a dramatic effect on the Haight community: “Homeless people are gonna sleep there,” he said. “People are gonna tag on it and think it’s theirs.”

“The whole city’s a park, but people need somewhere to go when they get kicked out of everywhere,” says pro skater Tony Trujillo, who is able to skate to the Potrero park from his house and thinks others should have the same proximity to hassle-free skating. Julien Stranger, another local pro, feels a park in the Haight would benefit youth in the area by giving them a healthy, creative outlet, something the Haight symbolizes to many. “I don’t think that the neighborhood should be complaining about the energy a skate park will bring,” he said. “Skate parks are pretty positive.”

Earlier this month, an informational meeting hosted by the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, Kinsey, Hornbeck, and other residents raised concerns that noise pollution and property damage would increase because of the skate park. “There’s been no public outreach,” said Martha Hoffman, who lives across from where the park is slated to be built. “If we’d known about it sooner, we would have opposed earlier.”

Thuy Nguyen of the SF Skate Club, an after-school program that promotes skateboarding as a safe and positive activity, urged residents to look beyond their property values and consider the benefits for the city’s youth. “It’s important for kids who feel that traditional sports aren’t for them.” Her partner, Shawn Connolly, added that skateboarding has grown in popularity with children. “It’s right after baseball,” he said.

“If the city doesn’t have a skatepark, the city is the skatepark,” Hornbeck said of the Waller Street lot where he often hosts skate events with donated ramps to ease the community into the idea of skateboarders using the area. But until the city budget can provide for skateboarders, the debate over the park will rage — and the underused parking lot at the end of Waller will remain just that.