The Skatepark Decision, Part 8

Some people are very particular about how they squeeze their toothpaste. Others could care less. When these two worlds collide you have what is known as the toothpaste tube phenomenon.

It's amazing that this phenomenon hasn't received more mainstream press coverage. You won't see it on 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, Dateline, 20/20 or even Extra. So consider this an exclusive…

To understand the toothpaste tube phenomenon and how it relates to parks and recreation, a couple of things need to be established.

First, skateboarding and other youth activities sponsored and run by the parks and recreation department have the obvious benefit of getting kids active in something other than what can be dangerous idle time.

There's also a not-so-obvious benefit that's actually a double benefit, particularly as it relates to skating. And it helps eliminate the toothpaste tube phenomenon.

The Right Direction

A few years ago, a north Portland, Ore. business association asked the local police to do something about skateboarders using their sidewalks and anything on those walks for urban jumps and obstacles. The businesspeople basically wanted the police to harass and ticket the kids until they went away, if they ever did.

"I thought it was a short-sighted approach to the issue since it would displace the problem somewhere else. We would end up chasing this problem all over north Portland," says Scott Winegar, commander of the family services division of the Portland Police Department.

"Doesn't it make more sense to give them a place that's productive, fun and safe to go? And if we find them somewhere they're not supposed to be -- such as riding up on the architecture and statuary of the water bureau, which was happening at the time -- we can go there and say, 'You can't skate here, but you can skate here. Here's the bus line, it's in a park, it's lit and it's a nice facility.' It just made more sense to me."

Winegar points out how the toothpaste tube phenomenon plays out in real life, and its effect on the police and the community at large. Here, Winegar makes a strong argument for the toothpaste squeezer who pays attention to the tube, carefully sending it to the opening where it belongs, while progressively flattening the back of the tube.

This is in stark contrast to the toothpaste user who squeezes indiscriminately. Next thing you know, toothpaste can be found lumped willy-nilly here and there along the tube, wasting toothpaste and making it difficult to work with.

And so it is with skateboarders. Winegar's point was to provide a logical outlet that would not squeeze skaters in the wrong direction -- namely other Portland business districts.

Nearly eight years after the skateboard nuisance subject was broached, Winegar's idea that a skatepark would keep the kids off the streets, thereby allowing the police department to concentrate its time and resources in more important venues, has played out perfectly.

And, since Winegar was one of the catalysts for building the park, he brought the added benefit of a police perspective. Perhaps the most important thing gleaned from this perspective that any parks and recreation department considering a skatepark should consider is visibility.

"The skatepark is designed so that the police can drive by three out of the four sides of the park, and from those vantage points they can drive by, look into the park and see just about everywhere in the park. From a police standpoint, that was very important," says Winegar.

"If you have structures or places where people can hide, it lends itself to the possibility of a crime problem. Using Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) it was designed so that it could be patrolled and policed easily, not only by the police. The neighbors can look out their window and see everything in the park and that contributes to the self-policing nature of the park."

Winegar adds that people naturally expect the police to take care of behavioral problems or criminal activity at any public venue, be it a skatepark or a picnic area. Given that fact, collaboration with the police provides countless benefits.

Many communities simply seek the police department's approval for a new facility. They want buy-in so that the police department won't resent, and possibly neglect, adding a new area to their patrol schedule. Winegar recommends the extra step, and that is to seek law enforcement expertise in creating a self-policing environment.

"If you're going to ask the police to help you keep it safe, you have to think about the rules and subsequent enforcement mechanism for those rules," says Winegar. Again, police involvement allows you to more easily establish those parameters.

Overcoming Obstacles

Winegar's observations led him to be a major proponent for a new skatepark in north Portland. Previously, the city did not have a successful skatepark in its system and Winegar figured it was high time to make something happen.

His first step was to contact the local National Guard to see if it would be interested in helping with the construction of a skatepark (Winegar is a Guardsman). The Guard has a program for community improvement projects, utilizing Federal grant money as the funding catalyst.

Winegar submitted his proposal, which he likens to a thorough business plan, which was readily accepted. The next step was to run the proposal up the community flag pole, specifically the neighborhood association for north Portland.

Armed with his information, and a blessing from the National Guard, Winegar was positioned third on that night's agenda. Unbeknownst to him, second on the agenda was a young man named Luke Akers seeking the exact same result.

Akers and six or so skateboarding buddies made an effective presentation to the association, greasing the wheels for Winegar's presentation.

"The neighborhood association decided that they would sponsor the project. From that day forward they held all the necessary community meetings, provided political support and provided time, people and effort to assist with the process and construction," recalls Winegar.

"It was a great marriage that happened from that evening right off the bat. Then it took a lot more cooperative effort."

With the neighborhood association as the oversight body, the skaters went out in the area to find a potential location for the park. The list they came up with was compared to a checklist of items that would be needed at the site -- open space, easy access (including proximity to a bus line), a nearby telephone, bathrooms, and so on.

The list was narrowed to a city park, which was approved with a conditional land use agreement, which requires that you poll residents within a certain distance of the park.

"The kids stepped up to the plate on this. One of the teachers at their school agreed to take this on as a social studies/civic action learning experience for the students. They put the survey together, and not only did they meet the city requirements, they went six to eight blocks in every direction and polled everyone," relates Winegar.

Winegar adds that only two neighbors had a problem with the park, with safety being their primary concern. Once the skaters and Winegar spoke with them individually, their fears were allayed and the park had passed that hurdle.

"By the time that was all over, one of the neighbors said, 'We live really close to the park, so if anyone ever gets hurt, you can come to our house, use our phone and call for help.' They turned from antagonists to protagonists," says Winegar.

Indeed, as this and similar experiences filter in from across the country, people once adverse to the idea of a skatepark learn to love the reality as they're educated, particularly by the skaters themselves.

With the construction money accounted for, the next hurdle was raising the money needed for the peripheral work associated with the construction.

The neighborhood association defrayed the cost of design, partly by holding a fundraiser. Once design was paid for, the next financial hurdle was paying for the permit fees. A building permit would cost $10,000, but dogged effort by the skaters and the community convinced the city to waive the permit fees. As Winegar recalls, "The mayor had a difficult time saying no to the kids."

Then, a related fiscal crisis appeared. The permit was rejected because the building code requires that any public structure open to public access needs a 36-inch high safety railing any time there's a drop of more than 12 inches.

So they had to appeal the denial of permit, which would cost a couple of thousand dollars. Fortunately, they were able to utilize a Gang Resistance Training and Education (GREAT) trust fund to pay for the appeal.

"It could've been a show stopper. I'm hoping that the drafters of the building code are beginning to recognize skateparks as a structure with unique needs," says Winegar.

"For a community that wants to go down this road the best first step would be to build an exception or waiver clause into their building code for skatepark facilities. If we had known that in advance, we could've avoided the problem altogether."

Winegar says the skatepark blazed a lot of new territory for Portland, so questions about liability needed to be answered.

"At that time I did an Internet search of skateparks in the western half of the U.S., and there had never been a claim filed against any governmental agency for an injury in a skatepark. Everyone knows there's a risk to the sport, and this is not a litigious group," says Winegar.

Now that the concrete skatepark is built, it's moving on to the next phase, which is a thorough refurbishing. The National Guard did a great job, but as Winegar says, they're military engineers, not skatepark builders. So plans are in the work to have Dreamland Skateparks remodel the facility.

"There are some small things the skaters pointed out to us that we had no way of knowing -- how coping needs to be set into an edge, drainage and concrete seam issues -- for example. Skaters know those things, but construction people don't necessarily," says Winegar.

"They're also going to look at adding some more things to it so that it will be challenging to an even broader spectrum of skill. And even though there are some issues, it's still the most-used facility in Portland."

The skatepark has been such a big success that Winegar says the last parks bureau bond levy included about $500,000 for skateparks.

Bryan BuchkoComment