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In the News Index

Source: Inga Saffron
Date: May 6, 2005
Byline: A new skate park to love?


Changing Skyline

Thanks to the federal government's eavesdropping on Mayor Street's e-mail exchanges, we now know what a vital role the skateboarder vote played in his 2003 reelection campaign. With his opponent giving him grief for banning the sport at LOVE Park, Street's political advisers begged him to compromise and allow evening access. The park's granite tiers, after all, were renowned worldwide among skateboarders. But the mayor replied he would not go soft on skateboarding.

Then, two months before the November vote, Street unexpectedly executed the political equivalent of a skateboarder's hand-plant: He promised to support a new "world-class skateboarding facility" on the banks of the Schuylkill.

Today, that riverside site south of the Art Museum is as grassy as it ever was. But buoyed by the mayor's promise – and a $100,000 city grant – Philadelphia's skateboard community has managed to complete two designs for LOVE Park's long-awaited replacement, both by the non-skateboarding Philadelphia architect Anthony Bracali. The skateboarders, under the mantle of Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, intend to present a final version to the Fairmount Park Commission in June. After that, all they have to do is raise the $4 million necessary to build it, twice Street's original estimate.

It's hard to look at Bracali's designs without recalling the extreme debate that led Street to ban skateboarders in 2000 from LOVE Park, formally known as JFK Plaza, and to waste $1 million on a sub-par renovation there.

Before the grass medians, wooden benches and sickly pink trash cans were installed, LOVE Park was skateboarding's Fenway Park, a serendipitous arrangement of ledges, steps and curves that just happened to be the most perfect arena for the popular, street-style skateboarding that Philly made famous. LOVE Park was that rare thing – an authentic, home-grown attraction, the sort of place that other cities wished they had in their downtowns.

As a skateboarding mecca, LOVE Park has taken on the mythical aura of an Atlantis. But as an idea, it lives on in new parks. This summer, skateboarders in Kettering, Ohio, expect to open the first street-style skate plaza that is an unabashed love song to LOVE Park. (see skateplaza.com)

Bracali's two design variations, dubbed the Shard and the Spiral, also show the influence of LOVE Park, but are not just copies of LOVE Park, which was designed in 1964 by Vincent Kling to cover an underground garage at the terminus of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Rather, they tweak the elements that skateboarders loved, including the hard surfaces, level changes and viewing platform, as well as actual granite benches salvaged from LOVE Park's renovation.

The Spiral, as its name suggests, includes a circular ramp around a central platform that could be used as a multipurpose stage. The Shard radiates several distinct skating paths and is greener at the center.

Even after two years of planning, it's not clear why skateboarding should be more socially acceptable in a purpose-built park than in its old location, especially given that LOVE Park is one of City Hall's three contiguous and grossly underused plazas. Not only does the new skate park require a huge financial investment and duplication of infrastructure, it will occupy one of the larger and prettier spots along the popular new Schuylkill path. Though the skate site will be an easy roll from 30th Street Station, it can't match JFK Plaza's transit access.

Still, that was the hand the skateboarders were dealt. To their credit, they have taken pains to design a park that is deferential to the path's other users. As Jim Cavanagh, of Franklin's Paine, likes to say, "I'm building a space where I can skateboard and my non-skateboarding friends can read a book."

So, both of Bracali's designs include landscape buffers between the path and the skateboarding areas. Both will create a useful paved walkway between the path, the parkway, and Eakins Oval. The skateboarders also plan to extend the sidewalk along a section of the parkway where none now exists – something the city never bothered to do. Because skateboarding is a very social sport, both designs offer plenty of nooks for hanging out.

It would take an experienced skateboarder to evaluate the designs on the more technical points of the sport. Aficionados seem to prefer the Shard. But from an outsiders' perspective, the Spiral seems to offer a greater variety of skateboarding situations. I'm drawn to the Spiral, because the idea of a performance stage overlooking the river is so appealing. That platform could also support an artwork as its centerpiece, just as Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture dominates JFK Plaza.

Given the huge price tag associated with the skate park, the project will probably require a corporate sponsor. How that sponsorship is handled is critical. So, too, is the quality of the skate park's construction. Bracali wants to use as much granite as possible, to replicate the conditions at LOVE Park. But granite is expensive, and it will be tempting to substitute cheaper materials if fund-raising falls short.

The Schuylkill path, which is about to receive its final landscaping, is evolving into one of Philadelphia's loveliest parks. At the same time, the skate park's closest neighbor, the historic South Garden of Fairmount Park, is getting a much-needed restoration. The skate park needs to work itself gently into that riverside landscape. The challenges ahead make a skateboarder's frontside turn look easy, but fortunately the skate park's supporters are eager to give the project a try.

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