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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 1, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury


The many spins on skate park

It's been a year since the city shut down one of the world's best-known public skateboarding venues, LOVE Park — drawing anguished cries from skaters, their supporters, and lovers of urban grit and energy everywhere.

Despite well-publicized promises by Mayor Street to offset the loss of LOVE Park with a dedicated skateboard park, plans for such a site have barely advanced beyond the early planning stage — and no public funds are available for construction anyway.

A site along the Schuylkill behind the Art Museum has been identified by the city Planning Commission as a likely park area, but the Fairmount Park Commission has not formally reviewed proposals or given approvals. And the president of the park commission is having second thoughts about the river site.

While the park-planning process has been inching along, Councilman Michael A. Nutter has introduced legislation in City Council that calls for a more severe crackdown on skaters. The bill, which increases fines for illegal skating from $25 to $75, also extends antiskating bans to include in-line skating and bicycling as well. The bill specifically bars such activities from large plazas in Center City.

But not all has been hostility and complacency in the city's skateboard world.

A movement has emerged to rescind the skating ban at LOVE Park. Advocates are arguing that skateboarding is a "historic activity" at LOVE Park, officially known as JFK Plaza.

And now the issue has entered the mayoral campaign, with Republican candidate Sam Katz calling for an end to the skateboarding ban at the park.

"To see the issue come to light like this — it's amazing," said Brian Nugent, a skateboarder and designer who has been fighting the LOVE Park ban for more than a year. "This is huge. It's as big as we always said it was."

Maxine Griffith, executive director of the city Planning Commission, said that once the Schuylkill site had been identified last summer, Logan Square residents raised objections. Meetings were held to address concerns, largely centering on the safety of pedestrians and skaters.

Donna Ferrari, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said the Planning Commission "did a remarkable job of providing information" about the proposed site.

"They did such a good job, we voted unanimously to support the park," Ferrari said.

Once community fears were allayed, a conceptual design of the park, which would be perhaps twice as large as LOVE Park, was worked out.

"The city is committed to funding the next step of the design," Griffith said. [That figure would be roughly $30,000, skateboarders said.]

In July, the Planning Commission will bring in a professional skateboard-park designer "to sit down with all the parties" and come up with essential design elements, Griffith said.

"I won't say the devil — God is in the details every step of the way," she said. "Fairmount Park, the Recreation Department, all have to be comfortable."

Not to mention skateboarders and residents.

"Skateboarders want a world-class park and why do a park in Center City unless it's a great one?" Griffith said.

That said, Griffith declined to put a price tag on a park.

"It's all predicated on the skateboard community being able to raise the funds," Griffith said.

Skateboarders have begun organizing toward that end, they said. Whether they could raise the amounts needed — various estimates have ranged from $500,000 to $2,000,000 — remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Fairmount Park Commission has received details of the riverside park, but has not taken action. Last week, Robert N.C. Nix III, president of the commission, said he was not sure the Schuylkill site was the best choice.

"We haven't moved on it, but we're looking at two sites," Nix said. The second site is Franklin Square, Sixth and Race Streets. Nix declined to elaborate.

Nutter, who introduced the antiskating bill in Council last week, said he supported construction of a skateboard park in Center City. His opposition to skaters centered on the property damage they allegedly cause.

The bill, which bans skating, in-line skating and biking in large private city plazas, is supported by owners and managers of Center City's biggest buildings — Commerce Square, the Bell Atlantic tower, 11 Penn Center, and other powerful real estate interests.

"I'm not against skateboarding," Nutter said. "I'm against property destruction."

That line of argument was dismissed as "hooey" by former city planning chief Edmund Bacon, 93, who conceived JFK Plaza and its columnar fountain. Bacon has emerged as a vocal skateboarding supporter. He attended a LOVE Park news conference Friday in which Katz called for an end to the skate ban there.

Standing in the park (before falling off a skateboard in a game — and illegal — effort to provide a photo op), Katz said that lifting the skating ban would enliven the park and send a positive message to young people. He also noted that constructing skate parks and recreation facilities offered opportunities for public-private partnerships.

Christine Ottaw, a spokeswoman for Street, said there were no plans to reopen LOVE Park to skaters. The mayor, she said, remained committed to building a skating park in Center City.

Katz said property damage supposedly caused by skating could be addressed with proper engineering.

But Bacon dismissed with contempt the claim that skating causes any appreciable damage.

"It's a cooked-up issue, a big lie," Bacon said. "How in heck could a young person with a little board and [small] wheels damage a granite bench?"

Banning skaters, he said, treats young people "as criminals" and slams the city's door in their faces.

That view also underlines the position of the Independence Hall Association, an organization normally focused on issues related to the historic district and Independence National Historical Park. But the association has decided that skateboarding is "historic" in LOVE Park. It wants to bring it back.

"People in the city don't realize that the reach of LOVE Park as an icon of skateboarding and the city of Philadelphia is global," said Douglas Heller, a member of the association's board, whose son is working on a book with Bacon.

"To the youth of America," Heller said, "LOVE Park is a more resonant icon than the Liberty Bell."

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