Why has it taken more than a decade to build a skater’s paradise in Boston?
by David Eisenberg, Dig Boston
The story of the Charles River Skate Park starts back in Ancient Greece with Aesop, and more specifically, his fable of The Tortoise and the Hare. You know how it goes. Slow and steady wins the race.
Two thousand or so years later, in Massachusetts, a local sculptor named Nancy Schön figured Aesop’s lesson could serve as a muse to those running the Boston Marathon. And so in Copley Square, Schön’s bronze sculpture poses history’s cockiest rabbit like it’s ready to explode through its spring-loaded stance, almost as if acknowledging that he is doomed to eat the dust of the turtle crawling comfortably ahead.
Schön’s sculpture, as it were, has also inspired a different breed of athlete. Over the years, skateboarders have incorporated the attraction into their infinite concrete playground, or at least they did until it soon became another off-limit spot ripe for riding. While she was upset about kids skating on her sculpture, Schön also empathized. Seen as a nuisance–or worse, a threat to public safety–skateboarders had no place to call their own.
The sculptor knew that change was needed. Thus, the idea for a skate park was born. This was more than 10 years ago.
At the time, the Charles River Conservancy (CRC), a nonprofit in Cambridge, spearheaded an effort to get a park built below the Zakim Bridge. The location alone would make it a gem. Hoping to raise $1.1 million to get it done by 2006, the conservancy strapped on their helmets and pads, and dropped into the project like it was a halfpipe at the X-Games.
Fast-forward to 2013. The parcel promised to skateboarders remains an industrial wasteland, embarrassingly sandwiched between floating duck boats full of tourists and trains leaving North Station. There’s but a silhouette of a kid skating on a big yellow sign that’s been there for as long as the promise of rails and ramps. SHRED AHEAD, it says, for this is the future home of the Charles River Skate Park.
It’s been a slow process, to say the least, and the obstacles that have prevented construction are numerous, complex, and in many cases unforeseen. If Aesop were around, he’d probably conclude that shit happens, maybe tell us to be patient. Nevertheless, we thought it was about time to dig in and see what the hell is taking so long.
THE GROANS BRIGADE
Blame it on toxic soil. The ground beneath the Zakim won’t exactly open up and suck you deep into the depths of some cancerous hell, but according to Renata von Tscharner, founder of the CRC, the dirt has been a total nag. According to her, you could probably build a skyscraper on this sort of terrain, but things becomes more complicated with a project like a skate park. It’s not exactly virgin soil. Due to generations of construction and mass transit in the area, no one really knows what lies beneath the surface–railroad remnants, tires, bodies–until you break through it. “You’re dealing with almost an archaeological dig,” says von Tscharner.
Conrad Crawford, director of external affairs at the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), says the plan for cleaning soil underneath the bridge must be “airtight.” A legal understanding between DCR and CRC officials says the former will be chiefly responsible for operating and maintaining the park upon completion. “There have been a lot of uses on that land and the soil situation is not clear,” says Crawford.
So how to deal with that pesky, poisonous earth? Digging it up and dumping it in the Charles might have been suitable in the halcyon days of environmentally ignorant bliss, but today we’re much greener. And so the plan has been to pry it up, pre-load the dirt and everything else into the middle of the site, shape it, bury the nasty stuff beneath three-feet of concrete, and, finally, bring in new, clean materials to surround the edges.
“It’s an orderly process we had to think through along the way,” says Jason Lederer, the project’s manager with the CRC.
This hasn’t been such an ordeal elsewhere. In Philadelphia, for example, the beloved FDR Skate Park was basically born out of a partnership between the DIY skater ethos and municipal adequacy.
“It’s been long enough,” says Jimmy Lake, owner of Corner Store Skate Co., an upstart skate and apparel brand based out of Cambridge. Lake has been living and skating around Boston for seven years. He continues: “New York managed to build like eight parks or something. Philly has built parks. Every other major city has managed to get it done.”
Here, our concrete playpen seemingly needs blessings, hugs, and kisses from every political body from Beacon Hill to Cambridge. Asked about this bureaucratic labyrinth, Lederer explains that plans need to be vetted by a range of entities including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection, the DCR, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Cambridge Conservation Commission, and the MBTA.
You can blame the economy.
In February 2004, von Tscharner wrote in the Boston Business Journal that her conservancy was hoping to raise $1.1 million for skate park construction, with a tentative opening date in 2006. Between then and 2008, they were able to raise a whopping $2.4 million more than what they’d initially hoped for, very much thanks to generous gifts from the Lynch Foundation, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the state, the City of Cambridge, and others. These are impressive figures; currently, von Tscharner says their annual budget is around $400,000.
Following the financial meltdown of 2008, the CRC and DCR agreed to swap responsibilities, making the latter responsible for building, and putting the former in charge of subsequent operations. “DCR was concerned they wouldn’t have sufficient funds to maintain the skate park,” says von Tscharner.The joint decision was reached in light of a 2009 announcement that the project could receive an additional $2 million in federal funding. When that money fell through, though, the departments switched assignments yet again.
Likely for the good of the project, everyone eventually reverted back to their original roles. Had the DCR been tasked with construction, the number of potential designers they could enlist would’ve been limited to firms registered as approved vendors in Massachusetts. The CRC has more options. Still, there was another issue brewing over who owned the polluted land.
Before the DCR can operate a park, one must be built. Before it can be built, though, the DCR needs ownership of the property, which, as of now, is still owned by the Department of Transportation. Crawford says the land transfer is in its final stages, and concedes that the procedure has been “a significant reason for the delay.” “I’m not sure that information regarding the status of the property and ownership of the property were fully comprehended at the early stages,” he says. “If people had been fully aware of that, some of these issues might have been addressed earlier.”
In classic nightmarish government fashion, the procedural and licensing processes for undertaking such a massive effort as a skate park proved insanely counterintuitive. As it turns out, according to von Tscharner, “You don’t know what foundations you need to build until you actually dig in the ground.” “On the other hand,” she says, “we needed to show some drawings early on to funders so they could imagine.”
Upon securing seed funding, the CRC brought on the California-based Wormhoudt Inc. to help map out a master plan. But after working with Wormhoudt and the local skate community to hatch a first design, the marriage ended unceremoniously.
“It was a little bit mysterious how that relationship ended,” says Zach Wormhoudt, the firm’s principal landscape architect. “We actually opted to not continue with the project because it was not progressing in a way that made sense to either party. That’s pretty unique.” Asked where things went wrong, von Tscharner notes that Wormhoudt was not fit to “execute the [planned] design.”
Next up was the Seattle-based Grindline, which the conservancy was attracted to due to the company’s experience in cold climates. Yet the project hit another mysterious snag there. Grindline COO Matt Fluegge says that he would reach out to the conservancy during seeming standstills. It was during one of those calls, he says, that he was told the CRC was speaking with a third design firm. “We weren’t really given the chance to provide a competitive design,” says Fluegge. “If we didn’t call and check in, I don’t know that we would’ve been notified at all.”
Though such management decisions have bred skepticism in the skate community, CRC spokespeople are now confident that they will break ground this year. They made the same claim last year, but as proof this time, von Tscharner points to a large book in her office that she calls the “100 Percent Document.” Thanks to assistance from the out-of-state design firms Action Sport Design (ASD) and Stantec, these files hold meticulous instructions for putting a 40,000 square-foot state-of-the-art skate park beneath a freeway ramp in a major city on a toxic riverside foundation. They’re more than a decade in the making.
When this park gets made, if it gets made, it will be astounding. Thanks in part to $27 million in stimulus money rejuvenating the area, it will also be more than a mere skate park. In addition to spacious waterfront land, people will be able to catch concerts by the new North Bank Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge. There will also be impressive gardens that intercept the falling rain and filter out the muck.
“Regardless of what we’re required to do, we want to do things that are going to help improve the ecological function of the area,” says Lederer. “We’re sitting next to the Charles River. We want to make sure that anything we do here also has an opportunity to contribute to its ongoing improvement.”
Skaters can expect deep bowls, plus stairs, railings, and ramps. Designers say they’re striving to create a challenging environment for pros and beginners alike. The park will also accommodate handicapped athletes. And, of course, there will be a replica tortoise and hare statue. “We want to honor [Schön],” says von Tscharner. “It’s a nice kind of symbolic closure of that struggle.”
Everyone who is directly involved seems optimistic. The CRC recently secured an environmental greenlight from the Conservation Commission of Cambridge, and the parties that need to be communicating are in full cahoots. Still, the project needs a contractor before ground can be broken. This has left some skaters skeptical that anything will happen soon.
“Maybe they’ll get it done, but I’m not really seeing it happen,” says Lake of the Corner Store Skate Co.
Though the new bowls could be a godsend, Lake says there are abandoned areas where skaters “do more maintenance than the city does.” A good start, at least in the interim, would be for authorities to allow skaters to make their own gauntlets.
“We’ve been kicked off,” says Lake, who adds that skaters are still waiting for a place to call their own.
As for the Charles River Skate Park … it looks like there will be at least one more delay. In classic New England fashion, there’s some predictably unpredictable weather on the horizon. If winter is mild, the CRC hopes to break ground before next year. Should the ground freeze and the snow fall, it will take longer.
Here’s hoping that the rainmaker above us ain’t a snowboarder.