The Hell Ride Crew took one look at the pictures of freshly troweled concrete and put out a call to the tribes. It would be the Sturgis of skateboarding, a weekend of ripping, raging, beer and bands. No big contest money, corporate sponsors or swooping ESPN camera cranes -- just hard-core skaters and some of the industry's top professionals summoned by the scent of pool dust tossed above the vertical lip of one of America's gnarliest skateparks. "Be there or screw you," read the flier.
Like Deadheads with scabbed elbows and a gleeful disregard for authority and personal safety, more than a thousand skaters from across the nation pointed their wheels toward the newest concrete mecca:
Carbondale, Colorado. Population 5,500.
Although it's renowned for its snow-packed mountain vistas, this state has also become a prime destination for skateboarders. Colorado has more than eighty public skateparks, built by local municipalities in response to the sport's explosion in popularity over the past decade, and dozens more are in the planning stages.
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But as any skater can tell you, all skateparks are not created equal. While some Colorado facilities are masterpieces of flow and function, among the best in the country, others are so ill-conceived and poorly constructed that they're about as fun to skate as a sinkhole in a K-mart parking lot. Not only are these lawsuits-in-waiting a waste of public funds, but they frustrate the hell out of skateboarders, who often spend years lobbying local officials for a spot to call their own. They include Jake Phelps, one of the organizers of the Carbondale event and editor of Thrasher magazine. The California-based skateboard rag recently started publishing "Certified Piece of Suck," a monthly spread highlighting some of the country's worst skateparks. "I'm going to be skating this stuff," Phelps promises, "and if it sucks, then I'll be the first to tell you it sucks."
"I'll tell you the main reason why some skateboard parks are so shitty," says legendary pro skater Tony Alva, who, as a member of '70s skate team Dogtown, more or less invented vertical-surface pool skating before most of today's riders were born. "They let non-skaters build them and design them. And the other reason is that cities, sometimes they've got all this red tape and these fucking blueprints, and that don't mean shit when it comes to building skateparks."
Phelps puts it even more bluntly: "The people who are making skateparks that don't skate are assholes."
Carbondale does not suck. And on this weekend in late August, when the crowds encounter the 13,000-square-foot skatepark for the first time, the last thing they think of is an asphalt sinkhole. Spectators, huddled perilously around the ten-foot drop, are reminded of fjords, of canyonlands, of a winding gorge carved from granite by centuries of wind and water. But as professional skateboarder Omar Hassan's urethane wheels float inches past their howling faces, mostly they think of speed.
Mark "Monk" Hubbard accelerates along the banked walls by weaving through a series of perfectly rounded corners and hips toward the park's most notable feature, an eighteen-foot-tall concrete capsule that resembles half of a massive, hollow Tylenol gelcap. Inside the cavern, Monk thrusts himself into a 60-degree loop in the capsule's rear pocket and emerges to a spray-back of cheering -- like a surfer shooting out from the Pipeline.
He knows these transitions well, and not just because he's a rad skater. As owner of Grindline, a Seattle-based skatepark construction outfit that has earned an exalted reputation for its inventive, challenging designs, Hubbard himself conceived and built this park.
Like most skater-owned firms, however, Grindline gets its public-sector business not from big cities with big budgets and big crowds of skaters, but from small towns. In larger metropolitan areas, skater-owned companies wind up competing with local architects and concrete contractors and are often bumped out of the bidding process by municipal regulations.
In Colorado, this means skaters in search of the best concrete rides have to head for the hills -- to Grindline's park in Carbondale, or the parks in Aspen, Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Salida and Cañon City that were cast by skater-run Team Pain out of Florida, or the Montrose park built under the all-seeing eye of local roller-skating virtuoso Tim Altic.
Coming down from the mountains, skaters encounter a different kind of terrain. Of the 22 public skateparks in the metro-Denver area, only two, in Boulder and Aurora, were designed by a skater-owned firm: SITE Design Inc. out of Phoenix. The rest are the work of various pre-constructed ramp companies and landscape-architecture firms.
The most successful local firm to ride the skatepark boom is the Architerra Group, headed by Dean Pearson and Mike Taylor. But utter the word "Architerra" on the deck of a Denver ramp, and you'll hear plenty of gripes. If pressed, skaters will admit that Architerra's work is light years ahead of the really, really bad skateparks, but that doesn't answer their basic question: Why are non-skaters designing parks, anyway?
Five years ago, when I was nineteen, my friend Ryan and I decided that we were going to become professional skatepark designers. It made perfect sense at the time. We were driving back from the Arvada skatepark, where we'd spent yet another day pushing back and forth between four uninspired blue ramps built in 1995 by a company called Fad-tastic. A former playground manufacturer that later changed its name to Skateparks International, the Colorado company marketed its collection of pre-built obstacles as "skate-play equipment" and was beloved by municipalities almost as much as it was reviled by local skateboarders, since it offered a no-brainer process of skatepark production. City planners would simply throw down a flat slab of concrete and then select neatly designed ramps from the company catalogue, the same way they might create employee holiday baskets from a Hickory Farms brochure.
These ramps were so poorly conceived that it often seemed like Skateparks International had confused a skateboard with some kind of stylish dolly. Our favorite was a preposterously unskateable ramp in Greeley nicknamed "The Goliath" because its unconquerable visage looked like an eight-foot-tall refrigerator box slanted at an 80-degree pitch.
Both Ryan and I had been skating since elementary school. But skateboards had been around a lot longer than that. In the late '70s, hundreds of undulating snake runs and vertical bowls dotted the North American landscape. But liability concerns caused insurance rates to skyrocket, and by 1981, most of these "attractive nuisances" had been bulldozed; skateparks were simply too risky for both cities and private owners to build and maintain. So in the early '90s, when the sport's mainstream popularity was at a record low, Ryan and I -- like the rest of the few and the proud -- hiked up our chins, sagged down our pants and took to the streets in search of stairs, rails, ledges and banks. As the decade progressed, Sunday nights in downtown Denver began to look like an urban adaptation of Lord of the Flies, with wild packs of teenage skaters circling between Civic Center Station and the old Skyline Park (may it forever rest in peace). Street skating had a rhythm to which we quickly became accustomed: stairs, kick flip, cop, run, wall ride, security guard, fuck off, hide, wall ride, cop, ticket, skate, rail, face plant, home, pay ticket?, skate.
By the late '90s, cities began to recognize that instead of constantly chasing skateboarders away from property, it was more cost-effective to build areas where skateboarding was not a crime. Still, Ryan and I were infuriated that driveway-building contractors and know-nothing Skateparks International were allowed to masquerade as skatepark experts. Would you allow a guy who'd never climbed a rock to design your $100,000 climbing wall? How about letting the weekend Harley-riding dude draw up plans for a motocross track? And, hey, why not have a tennis player take a swing at laying out your city's million-dollar golf course?
Some skaters were so bummed by these early skateparks that they went right back out to ride the streets -- where the cops were now less forgiving.
Ryan was studying architecture in college, and both of us had built numerous skateboard ramps over the years. So we came up with the name Urban Creation and created a four-color brochure that we sent to every parks-and-rec director in the state. Our aspirations weren't huge; I certainly wasn't looking to make skatepark design a career. This was simply a preemptive strike against crappy skateparks -- and we thought we might even collect some money in the process.
The initial response wasn't promising. While our friends and parents were impressed that we were showing any initiative at all, city bureaucrats saw us for what we were: a couple of punk kids. Unlike legitimate skater-owned companies such as SITE Design, we were clueless about the proposal and the bidding process. We had only vague notions of construction costs. And insurance and liability? Um...
What we did know was the perfect height and angle for a pyramid obstacle. Too mellow and it wouldn't give enough boost, too steep and it would throw you right off your board. Just as a surfer can tell at a glance if an incoming wave is rideable by its depth and height, we intuitively knew at what point a particular skateboard obstacle became challenging and fun -- or janky and dangerous.
Eventually we got the chance to help design a skatepark for Elizabeth, a city forty miles southeast of Denver. Like many fast-growing Colorado communities, Elizabeth had sold its soul to developers and now had more money than pockets to put it in, so it issued a call for local landscape-architecture firms to design an outdoor sports area complete with softball fields, a roller-hockey court, a fishing pond and a skatepark. Denver-based Shalkey and Team brought us on as consultants for the skatepark, and together we won the bid.
Over the next six months, Ryan and I held a series of workshops with the young skaters of Elizabeth to come up with a design that integrated custom aboveground ramps with small concrete elements like ledges and stairs. The trick to putting together a good skatepark is to organize all of the obstacles in such a way that they can be hit in a series, in what skaters call "flow" or "lines." Creating good flow on paper isn't easy, especially for skateboarders who are used to perceiving things in a three-dimensional realm, so Ryan and I chalked out the entire plan to scale in an empty parking lot and rode our boards between the obstacles, making adjustments based on distance and speed. In order to stay within the town's budget, we maximized the flow to ensure that skaters would have more options with fewer ramps, and molded the skatepark's footprint to the surrounding park.
"Oh, man," boggled a fourteen-year-old skater at a workshop where we unfurled our plans. Up to that point, his most elaborate terrain had been the curb behind Safeway. "Oh, man, this is going to be so awesome."
Then, not long before our design was to go out for a construction bid, we learned that Elizabeth had hired a new parks-and-rec director named Joel Johnson. Although he admitted he knew nothing about skateboarding and had never before worked on a skatepark project, Johnson said he was concerned about the lack of "lanes" in our design. We tried to explain the concept of flow, but he didn't buy it. And Johnson's first move as director was to scrap our design in favor of a more comprehensible one by a company with a track record: Skateparks International.
We unceremoniously buried Urban Creation not long after. Last I heard, Ryan was off in California and had ditched architecture for the skateboarder's only true calling: deconstruction.
Over the past four years, more public skateboard parks have been built in the United States than in the past three decades. Christian Hosoi, skateboarding's high-flying superstar of the '80s, thinks the current boom is part of the natural evolution of a sport that needed to return to its roots. "The soul of the sport came from pools and concrete skateparks," he says, "and now it's coming back."
It makes sense, then, that this evolutionary stage was sparked not by civic officials or corporate entrepreneurs, but by Mark "Red" Scott and Monk Hubbard working in a trash-filled lot below a freeway in Portland, Oregon, back in 1990.
By Hubbard's account, they just wanted a place to skate -- so instead of crying to the city and waiting for years for someone to do something, they started building it for themselves. Lacking both official funds and authorization, the grubby skaters used concrete left over from their various construction jobs to mold banks below the Burnside Street bridge. Learning by trial and error, they constructed bowls and quarter-pipes, working them into the bridge's pillars.
In 1992, Hubbard attempted a similar project below a bridge in Seattle, using skills he'd learned while building commercial swimming pools to stealthily dig a peanut-shaped bowl. But before the concrete could be poured, a nearby resident called the cops. Busted, Hubbard and his crew were ticketed and forced to refill their handiwork.
In the meantime, the Burnside Street park, once a shooting gallery for drug addicts, was on its way to becoming the most famous skatepark in the world. Though still technically illegal, Burnside was formally recognized by Portland in the late '90s. Today it's featured as a level on the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game, and it's often cited by architecture magazines as a testament to grassroots urban reclamation and the do-it-yourself skateboarder ethos.
The next leap forward in concrete skatepark construction came in 1996, in the unlikely location of Crested Butte, Colorado. Hubbard and Scott were brought in by local skaters to aid the makeshift crew that would later turn into Team Pain's original concrete squad. Tim Altic, a Telluride skater, drove over to help with the labor and compare notes on concrete work.
Altic has been designing concrete skateparks since the '70s, mostly in Europe, and likens it to writing or playing music. All three acts are specific and technical but rooted in intuitive knowledge. "A crew of skaters is going to manipulate the design to have better rhythm," he says. "They're going to change things to make it good skating. Somebody who doesn't skate can't make that decision; they have to follow the plan."
Coming in $10,000 below Crested Butte's $50,000 budget, the crew smoothed out an immense, eleven-foot-deep bowl that Sk8parklist.com calls "a rusty grandfather of today's concrete masterpieces." Soon after, Altic completed designs for Fort Collins, Team Pain got jobs in a number of Colorado mountain towns, and Hubbard and Scott began several projects along the Oregon coast, most notably the 30,000-square-foot Newberg skatepark.
Demand for their custom work grew so large that by 1999, the Newberg collective had split into several skatepark construction companies: Hubbard started up Grindline, Scott took off with Dreamland, and Geth Noble began building parks as Airspeed.
From its Seattle headquarters, Grindline now deploys crews of expert skateboarders to build about a dozen skateparks every year. But even though Grindline is fully licensed, bonded and insured like any contractor, it hasn't gotten commissions from bigger cities. Out of the fifty public skateparks that Grindline has designed and built, the largest was for Spokane. Chris Hildebrand, general manager and part owner of the company, says that's because smaller towns often lack the bureaucracies of larger cities or suburbs, giving them the freedom to hire an out-of-state design/build firm like Grindline. "The administration on the city end in smaller towns is a lot more simple," Hildebrand says. "Basically you're dealing with one person, whether it's a parks-and-rec director or someone else. So you can do things that are outside of the box a little bit easier. The bigger cities are more process-driven, and they've got specific ways in which they do everything."
Here's the way Louisville, Colorado, went about it. First the city put out a bid just for the skatepark's design. This was won by Design Concepts, a Lafayette-based company that had designed skateparks in Greenwood Village and Highlands Ranch. After the technical blueprints were completed, Louisville then initiated a second bidding process to choose a general contractor; that bid went to Environmental Constructors Inc., a local company. The only bid that was open to skater-owned firms was as a subcontractor for the specialty concrete work. Dreamland and Grindline were both pre-approved to submit proposals, according to Shawn Rolingher, a Design Concepts architect, but were under-bid by Commercial Shotcrete Inc., which has built numerous skateparks and promoted itself to the city and the general contractor.
Rolingher says that while he holds skater-owned companies in high esteem, "cities pretty much have their hands tied." The Louisville skatepark should be finished this November.
Smaller towns often spend much less than their larger counterparts on skateparks that are just as good, if not better, than those in big cities. In part, this is because land is cheaper in rural areas, but it's also because the towns are able to streamline the process and reduce the number of players involved. "If you're contracting out both an architect and a builder, you're paying for both of them to manage each other and deal with each other," Hildebrand says. By doing both the design and the construction, Grindline is not only able to build a project faster, but the company can also absorb many of the administrative costs that suck up a city's resources.
Cost was one reason Trinidad chose Grindline over two local landscape-architecture firms, even though the skater-owned company still seemed like a gamble. "In a small, economically depressed town, $250,000 is not an easy number," says Karl Gabrielson, Trinidad's planning director. "Whereas in metro Denver, $250,000 is a drop in the bucket."
Breaking into the Colorado market was important for Hubbard, and it was crucial that Grindline make a big splash with its first job in the state. As in many of the small towns where Hubbard builds, Trinidad was able to get materials like concrete and rebar donated by community businesses. Hubbard took those savings and put them back into the skatepark, adding numerous features. By the time the facility was completed in early 2003, it had expanded to 14,000 square feet, twice its originally planned size. "Every single park we've ever done has been bigger than the plans," Hubbard says.
Up in Carbondale, parks-and-rec director Jeff Jackel knew he was going to have to come up with something good when local skaters successfully lobbied for a new skatepark. After all, nearby Aspen's Team Pain-built skatepark was considered one of the best in the state. Then Jackel saw a thank-you letter that Joseph Reorda, the mayor of Trinidad, had sent to Grindline, in which he noted that the southern Colorado city -- whose primary claim to fame in recent years has been as the "Sex Change Capitol of the World" -- had suddenly become a destination for skaters from as far away as Maine and Florida. "For a city with a population of 10,000, we are impressed with the results," Reorda wrote.
"We recognized real fast that this is technical, specialized work, and you don't want to go with general concrete contractors that think they can do this," Jackel says of his decision to choose Grindline. Hubbard held a workshop with local skaters and within two weeks had completed the design for the 7,500-square-foot park. Jackel managed to get the excavation equipment donated, and then Hubbard's crew -- intentionally or not -- yanked up 5,500 square feet past what was planned, pushing Carbondale over its $150,000 budget. Instead of filling in the hole, however, Jackel rounded up another $60,000 from the town trustees, allowing Grindline to bust out a 13,000-square-foot park and the epic concrete capsule.
"I think this has been one of the best things to happen to this town," says Jackel, who's already working with Grindline on a 7,500-square-foot expansion.
Creating Carbondale's curved transitions called for a sculptor as much as it did a construction worker. After the dirt walls were repacked into a general outline and painstakingly blanketed with a web of rebar, the six-person crew employed the shotcrete system -- a highly specialized technique most often seen in swimming-pool construction -- to spray an extremely dense mix from a pressurized hose onto the vertical walls. Then, using trowels attached to long poles, the crew quickly cut and smoothed the fast-drying concrete with perfect accuracy: no lumps, no bulges, no seams.
One advantage to being the designers, the builders and the actual skateboarders is that they're able to make quick changes in the field. "You just can't design a perfect park on paper," Hubbard says. And there's no test or template that a normal concrete contractor can use to tell if a section has been poured the right way. Instead, with each scrape of the trowel, the skater/crew members think of their wheels rolling through a corner, their tails popping up an embankment -- or their faces skidding down it if a pyramid is designed too steeply.
Hubbard knows that Grindline skateparks are difficult. That's by design. Rather than building for the beginner kid still trying to ride down the driveway, he keeps the highest common denominator in mind: older, expert skaters. Like manifest destiny for skateboarders, he sees concrete monuments like Carbondale's studding the great bulge of America, a rolling network of gnarliness. He envisions skaters traveling from city to city, paying homage to the distinctive twists and turns of each skatepark. A "skate nation," built by skateboarders, for skateboarders.
But even Grindline has its detractors. Sean Robinson, co-owner of Denver's Emage Skateshop, has two primary criticisms of its skateparks: They're too extreme for the average skater and they don't include enough street elements.
For street skaters like Robinson, the park to hit is Fossil Creek in Fort Collins. The plaza of stairs and rails was much cheaper to build than the city's other, below-ground park. Tim Altic, who designed Fossil Creek as a consultant to a city-hired landscape-architecture firm, sees his role as interpreter between the skateboard world and the city. "It's not a matter of engineering; it's not a matter of architecture; you know, it doesn't even matter what rules the city has," he says. "Skating is skating, and there's the rule."
But landscape-architect groups that continue to get the country's biggest contracts often don't recognize the rule. "They don't know what they're doing," Altic says of the Architerra Group, which built the Denver Skatepark. "They're not skaters; they don't build good timing into their parks, the rhythm that you pump speed. They don't build that feeling into it, and that's why it's not so good."
The principals of the Architerra Group, Dean Pearson and Mike Taylor, are seated at a long conference table in their Littleton office, a converted one-story house on a former ranch sandwiched between C-470 and the foothills. On the walls around them are colored sketches of soccer fields, streetscapes, bike paths and riverwalks; there are also posters detailing the Denver, Lakewood and Sheridan skateparks.
Pearson and Taylor met at MDG Inc., a local environmental-design firm, where they worked on the wonky Parker skatepark and then helped design the Thornton skatepark before forming their own outfit. Over the past five years, skateparks have accounted for about 25 percent of Architerra's business, says Pearson, who used to skateboard back in the '70s. Although he admits that he's not much of a skater these days, he says he makes an effort to ride every one of the parks his company's designed. But it's clear that he doesn't see Architerra as skaters designing skateparks; he views the company's role as more of a conduit for the community's wishes. "We're not interested in telling other people what they should be skating," Pearson says. "Skaters have the final say on how each feature should look and how tall it should be."
The process of building and managing these projects has become a hot-button issue for parks directors, according to Regan Dickenson, editor of Parks and Rec Business Magazine, which ran a ten-part series on the subject. "A lot of it had to do with the fact that they were getting user demand" -- and not only from skateboarders, he says. Alternative activities like BMX and trials mountain biking, in-line skating and even mountain boards and razor scooters are chipping away at the popularity of conventional, ball-oriented sports with young people.
"We have this book called Time-Saver Standards for Landscape Architecture," explains Joe Eads, senior landscape architect for the City of Arvada, which has earmarked $500,000 for two more concrete skateparks. "It says, you know, here's a baseball field and you've got 320-yard baselines, and this is five feet from that, etc., etc. Well, there's no Time-Saver Standards for skatepark design."
Spread across Architerra's conference table are plans detailing the various design stages of the Westminster skatepark, the company's latest project, due for completion early next year. The plans evolve from pencil-drawn sketches to prints marked in red pen to final technical blueprints. Westminster originally hired Architerra to design a skatepark back in 2000, then scrapped that plan after Vans, the skateboard shoe company, opened a 55,000-square-foot indoor skatepark at the Westminster Promenade. But that state-of-the-art facility -- with its $15 entry fee -- couldn't compete with Colorado's plethora of public skateparks, which were not only free, but didn't have the "tranny nannies" who enforced Vans' strict pad-and-helmet requirement. After the Vanspark closed in 2003, Architerra was brought back on the job.
Architerra began the design process, as it usually does, by conducting a series of workshops with local skaters, BMXers and Rollerbladers, trying to get a general consensus on what the Westminster park should look like. (Out-of-state, skater-owned firms might hold only one workshop before coming up with a final plan; Grindline didn't hold any face-to-face meetings with Trinidad skaters.) The Westminster skatepark meetings were advertised in the city's community newspaper as well as on its television channel. Fliers were also posted at two local skate shops, and boarders from the far corners of the Front Range managed to show up.
The skaters who attended those meetings fell into two categories: thirty-something skate veterans and junior-high grommets who got their first boards last Christmas. Such a split in age, skill level and terrain preference (big, vertical transitions versus curbs and small stairs) can make integrating everyone's needs a challenge, says Pearson. And some skaters have no clue what they want. "You'll literally get an eight-year-old kid who says he wants a twelve-foot half-pipe and he's never skated a six-foot half-pipe," he points out. Since the older, more experienced skaters know what they're talking about, "often in the skatepark process, we'll zone in on those older guys and get some of the details from them."
In Westminster, one of those guys was Jason Heidecker, 33-year-old skater, ramp builder and electrical engineer with the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Boulder. Heidecker can often be found riding around local skateparks with a calculator and notepad in hand, taking down figures on radius, height and distance. He's assisted several landscape architects with skatepark design, offering technical advice and even submitting AutoCAD drawings. He doesn't get paid for the hours he puts in or get credit on the final product. He does it "because I hate seeing crappy skateparks," Heidecker explains. "I think it's horrible. It just bums me out that much when I go to skate a park and I'm not even stoked because it's not laid out right and I have the ability to look at it and think, 'Oh, man, if I could've moved this just twenty feet over, it would be all right.'"
While Heidecker thinks the construction quality of Architerra's skateparks is first-rate, the layout and dimensioning of obstacles can be a problem -- particularly at the firm's parks in Castle Rock and Littleton. "They put things in places where you can't hit the obstacles," he says. "Like a pyramid that you can hit from one way but can't from the other because they put a stairway there."
The Emage Skateshop is just two blocks from the Denver Skatepark, so Sean Robinson is very familiar with Architerra's work. "They have the right ideas," he says. "But it's just not the right angles, not the right height on the ledges for how big a bank something is." In 2002 Robinson and his Emage partner, Branden Peak, helped Architerra with the second phase of the park -- a $1.1 million, 10,000 square-foot expansion of the street course that would give Denver the largest public skatepark in the United States.
Robinson and Peak, both street skaters, were so alarmed by Architerra's first draft that they submitted a different design. "We gave them full CAD blueprints with cross-sections, everything you could imagine," says Peak, including a petition signed by over five hundred skaters.
"And Architerra basically ignored it," he adds. "They changed a few things, but not enough to where it works. Now there's so many elements in that new section that don't even get skated because they're unskateable."
Robinson remembers stressing the importance of getting the correct angles of the hips, "and that just didn't happen. There's one pyramid with a flat bar on top of it that's up against a wall with a weird tranny thing going up to it," he says. "That should've been a mellowed-out flat bank. So it's kind of like nobody can skate that thing, you know?"
Skaters also complain that Architerra's parks lack discernible flow. At the recently opened park in Federal Heights, skaters often run into dead ends and approach unusable obstacles. The Architerra-designed Lakewood park, according to a commentator on the Denver Skatepark website, is "a bit like Frankenstein's monster" because so many elements are inexplicably tied together. "This is what you get when you try to please everyone," the poster notes.
Forty-two-year-old Bruce Adams, who's been skateboarding and building ramps for 27 years, says that many older skateboarders attend Architerra's workshops specifically because Architerra, rather than a skater-owned company, got the job. "So what do we got to do? We got to go down there every day and keep our eye on things," says Adams. "Whereas if someone like Grindline got the bid, you wouldn't even have to tell the fuckers what to do. They're going to make it the raddest pool you could skate."
One of the advantages to hiring landscape architects, Pearson insists, is that they're familiar with public-use projects in larger cities, where conflicting needs of the government, the community and the users can often develop into contentious debate. When Arvada first proposed its skatepark in the mid-'90s, for example, residents protested that a skatepark would bring everything from an increase in traffic and noise to crime, drugs and even prostitution. "Dealing with skaters is one thing," Pearson says. "Dealing with angry neighbors who don't want a skatepark anywhere near them is another." And landscape architects "are trained to deal with the public, do public meetings, public facilitation, work with user groups like skaters," he points out, as well as think about drainage, utilities, earthwork, water tables and how the skatepark fits into the context of the site.
Becky Eades, a landscape architect with the City of Westminster, says the older skaters were very specific about what didn't work at Architerra's earlier skateparks. Over the course of the meetings, the most noticeable change in the plans was that the street section for the Westminster park was laid out in a linear, back-and-forth model, as opposed to past Architerra layouts where the ramps all pointed inward toward a single pyramid "centerpiece" -- creating the potential for a demolition-derby flow pattern.
Pearson flips to the final drawing of the Westminster park. There's the redesigned street course, as well as a large clover bowl that's been reworked by the vert dogs so that a skater can ride in a continual flow pattern without having to stop. The plans look good. On paper.
It's a breezy October afternoon at the Elizabeth skatepark. My 22-year-old brother is writhing on the ground in front of the Skateparks International quarter pipe, his board slowly rolling away as he makes a long, groaning noise like air being let out of a balloon.
Since we're the only ones at the park, I think about yelling "Are you okay?" But I know he hates that. So instead I just watch, leaning against a safety railing where some kid has written "Fuck you" in white-out. For my brother, a shop-sponsored skateboarder, this four-foot-high quarter pipe is a shoebox compared to some of the ramps he's done backside-smith grinds across. But the particular pitch and the disjointed bump between concrete and metal throws even the best skaters slightly off balance -- hence my brother's slam. Eventually he gets up and starts riding around again, a sour look on his face.
Tony Smith, a twenty-year-old skater who lives in Elizabeth, comes marching up the bike path between the playground and the softball field. He sets his backpack down on top of a series of stacked concrete ledges, the only obstacle kept from the skatepark's original design. After I was taken off the project, these concrete blocks were squished and malformed to accommodate prefabricated ramps. Smith sits on the tallest one like it's a bench and lights up a cigarette.
Five years after he took over, parks-and-rec director Joel Johnson says the city is pleased with the success of its skatepark. "I didn't have any experience in skateparks before, but I have two sons who skateboard," he says. When he came in his young boys had just started skating; he was worried that the custom design was too cramped and didn't leave enough options for novice skaters. So after checking out other skateparks around Denver, Johnson decided that a rectangular pad of concrete with some ramps was the best choice for Elizabeth. Plus he was able to get more square footage and do it all for under $100,000.
"This park sucks," Smith says. "They need some bigger stuff, like a half-pipe."
Some of his buddies roll up in their cars and soon are riding back and forth between the ten ramps that bang like steel drums with every trick. "This park?" says seventeen-year-old Justin Vandenburg. "It's all right. I mean this stuff," he gives a disaffected nod toward a two-foot-high bank, "this is cheap stuff." Still, it's better than what skaters had before in Elizabeth, which was nothing. But it's not enough to keep Smith and his friends from traveling to Colorado's other amazing skateparks every chance they get.
People will drive across the country to reach Carbondale. People won't drive across the county to get here. Smith says that kids from nearby Castle Rock will occasionally drop by. "But," he adds, "they don't stay long."
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