By Mary Ashton Watson
The skateboarding community of Charleston, S.C., had been advocating for a regional-sized skate park for decades. With few other skate parks available in the Lowcountry and new laws prohibiting skateboarding on the streets of downtown, skateboarders had limited places to ride. In 2011, The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC) took the first steps toward making area skateboarders’ dreams a reality.
CCPRC manages more than 11,000 acres of parks across the county. Providing fun and varied recreation sites for the community was not a new task for this agency. So why take on a skate park? One of CCPRC’s core values is to foster diverse populations of vendors, employees, and customers. Additionally, as a special-purpose district, CCPRC provides services that are outside the scope of other area municipalities, making this agency the logical choice for such a large-scale project. This project offered an opportunity for CCPRC to expand its park system and to cultivate a new customer base.
After announcing the project to the public, CCPRC began a highly competitive search for design and construction firms to assist. Hightower Construction was chosen as the lead construction firm, along with a number of consultants and sub-contractors to address the difficulties of construction on the coast. World-renowned skate-park design experts Team Pain Skate Parks was selected to design the skate-able elements. SGA Architecture, AECOM, and Terracon were also contracted to supplement the design and construction.
The Right Site
From the beginning, there was a push to build the skate park on the Charleston peninsula. Owned by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), the property near the intersection of Meeting and Huger Streets (where I-26 meets the Ravenel Bridge) was considered for some time. However, constraints on the use of the property created many obstacles and limitations for the construction of the new park, so this site was eventually abandoned and a new location was sought.
In September 2013, CCPRC announced that the new skate park, called SK8 Charleston, would be located on the upper peninsula of Charleston on Oceanic Street. This decision was made with careful consideration and a desire from many interested parties to keep the park on the peninsula. This unique property features 26 acres adjacent to I-26, with three acres of highland and a beautiful view overlooking the Ashley River marshes. Shortly after the new location was announced, it became evident that this property had its own challenges that needed to be addressed before construction could continue. The site was in a flood zone, needed soil remediation, and there were a variety of concerns regarding drainage and seismic safety. These new challenges prompted CCPRC to find cost-effective solutions, which involved working closely with review agencies, including the city’s Design Review Board, zoning, FEMA, SCDOT, and many more. CCPRC concluded that although these obstacles were unfortunate, they could be overcome, and so it began working through each challenge, one at a time.
On Solid Ground
With each obstacle, CCPRC made it a priority to ensure it was doing what was most beneficial for long-term operation of the skate park. The site contained two types of flood zones, requiring different construction methods to accommodate each one. SGA Architecture responded to the flood-zone threat by developing an elevated design for the building, which had the added bonus of creating increased visibility from I-26.
In the spring of 2014, soil and ground-condition testing were completed on the new site. During this necessary step, it became evident that the soil composition could not initially support the weight of the concrete park without extensive settlement. CCPRC hired Terracon, a geotechnical engineering firm, to help mediate the soil issues. The building foundation was placed on concrete piles, driven 45 feet or more below grade, to provide structural support and prevent the building from settling. The park’s future soil settlement is planned and expected, and a surveyor will be hired to monitor the progression of the settlement to assist with mitigation plans in the future.
Site soils and locations presented some seismic challenges. However, after looking at several construction options, it was determined that using concrete for the building structure rather than a traditional steel frame and metal studs would address those issues. “Additionally, this approach provided an easily maintainable building that could weather hurricanes and flooding better than traditional steel-framing construction,” said Gable D. Stubbs, of SGA Architecture. “The resulting exposed concrete contributes to the crisp lines of the building and ties in the materiality of the park’s bowls and snake run.”
An additional problem that became evident once the concrete elements were complete was the security of the park while construction was still underway. People were trying to break in overnight and skate on the unfinished park. For the safety of the public, CCPRC requested increased city police patrols and erected fencing in order to keep eager skaters out until the park was finished.
The project did face several issues that caused construction delays, including site preparation, inclement weather, supply-chain problems, and an unusual number of public-agency lines required for permit approvals. With each obstacle came additional weeks or even months added to the anticipated opening date. This delay, along with increased pressure from the public to offer a projected opening date, caused tensions to soar on both sides of the project. After the original plan of a grand opening in late 2016, SK8 Charleston opened in early March 2017.
Open For Business
Despite the many obstacles the project faced, SK8 Charleston has been very successful. Shortly after opening, the American Society of Civil Engineers South Carolina awarded SK8 Charleston the Project of the Year. With 32,500 square feet of skate-able terrain, this park features an 11.5-foot-deep “pro” bowl, a 7-foot-deep intermediate bowl, a 200-foot-long snake run funneling down into a 9-foot-deep pocket, and a 315-foot-long street course, complete with three pieces of skate art and marble. Overlooking this complex is a raised building with a perfect viewing deck for those wanting to watch the action. It includes seating, restrooms, concessions, and a retail shop. In its first year, SK8 Charleston served nearly 15,000 skaters. In addition, the park has hosted summer camps, skateboarding competitions, and concerts. The park also sparked the creation of the Skate Forward campaign, developed by CCPRC’s non-profit partner, The Parklands Foundation. Supported by a $30,000 grant from The Speedwell Foundation, the program aims to give access and introduce the sport of skateboarding to low-income communities near the park. In their first initiative, they partnered with municipal recreation-department summer camps to organize field trips to SK8 Charleston.
In addition to the skateboarding community’s excitement, SK8 Charleston sparked an increased interest from the BMX community. CCPRC warmly welcomes this community into the park on Tuesdays, which is open for BMX riders only. Quad and in-line skaters are also given skating opportunities Wednesdays through Mondays.
SK8 Charleston is very special to Charleston’s skateboarding community. It is safe to say that no one quite anticipated the uphill demands this project would require, but all agree the view was worth the climb.
Mary Ashton Watson is a marketing and public relations intern for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission in South Carolina. For more information, visit www.CharlestonCountyParks.com.