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To skateboarders, Chicago plaza would be sweet

By Hal Dardick
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 17, 2005

Once viewed warily by adults and recreation officials, skateboard parks with their bowls, half-pipes and ramps are now staples of park districts across the Chicago region.

But a growing number of skaters prefer to slide and grind on city streets and plazas, particularly in downtown Chicago.

That preference forces them to play cat-and-mouse with police enforcing a ban on skateboarding downtown. So they are asking Chicago Park District officials to build a skate plaza--distinctly different from a skate park--in Grant Park.

"You would have an international phenomenon," said Steven Snyder, a former professional skateboarder who makes a living designing skate parks and, at 42, is something of a father figure in Chicago's skateboard community.

Snyder and his fellow skateboarders envision Chicago as a Mecca for street skaters across the nation. Tourists hooked on the skateboard lifestyle, with its unique lingo, clothing and media, would descend on the city. It would be featured in video magazines on DVDs sold across the globe, they say.

They have found a friend in Bob O'Neill, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council.

"I want Chicago to be the first big city to have a downtown skate plaza," he said.

O'Neill first backed a skateboard area primarily as a way to contain skaters who he felt were damaging property and scaring pedestrians. While still concerned about those issues, he was won over by the attitude of the skaters who lobbied him.

"What at first blush looked like competing interests in Grant Park turned out to be what everyone wants: a green skate plaza that can be used by skateboarders, Rollerbladers and non-skateboarders alike. A perfect fit for Grant Park: green and multiple use."

In November, Park District Gen. Supt. Timothy Mitchell agreed to install a temporary, modular skate park. If it's well-used, a permanent facility would be built, he said.

A skate plaza would have all the features of an urban plaza: smooth surfaces, benches, stairs, railings and green areas. It would be open to skateboarders, in-line skaters and spectators alike.

Skate parks sometimes include plaza elements, such as stairs and railings, but their main features are obstacles designed for "vert" skaters, who traditionally use bowls, half-pipes and ramps.

Snyder and his fellow skateboarders, who have been working closely in recent months with O'Neill, say city officials have turned street skaters into outlaws by banning skateboarding downtown. Chicago police also make trespassing arrests on private plazas if managers are willing to press charges.

Threat of jail, fines

Street skaters take cover behind bushes and Dumpsters to escape tickets that carry fines ranging from $25 to $200. Some have spent a night in jail, had their skateboards confiscated and ended up paying lawyers' fees, court costs and hefty fines.

"The first bike cop chased us and actually pulled his gun out on us and made us lie down, just like on `Cops,'" said Vincenzo Marrocco, 25, a Wicker Park resident who is vice president of Affiliate Skateboards, a West Town neighborhood manufacturer and retailer.

He was recalling his arrest in 2001, when he and five others were nabbed by seven bicycle cops who caught them illegally skating the plaza just south of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"We spent exactly 24 hours in jail," he said. "It's a concrete bench where the lights never go out."

In the end, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor institutional vandalism and did 30 hours of community service, cleaning parking lots and fieldhouses.

"That's the risk that skateboarders are willing to take," he said. Most, however, would use a skate plaza in a central city location if it were available, Marrocco and others said.

City officials want to test that claim with a two-part strategy: providing a legal place to skate downtown, and ticketing those who insist on skating elsewhere illegally.

Damage to property

"First and foremost, we like to give a warning out," Central District Chicago Police Cmdr. Thomas Byrne said. If skateboarders don't heed the warning, they face a citation or arrest if they are trespassing, "especially if there's property damage," he said.

Property damage is cited by officials across the country who have banned skateboarding in public places. Some plazas that have become magnets for skateboarders have been altered to make them skateproof.

The widespread banning of urban plaza skateboarding motivated Rob Dyrdek--a 30-year-old professional street skater from Carlsbad, Calif., who has a six-figure income--to come up with the skate plaza concept for Kettering, Ohio, his hometown. He played a key role through the Rob Dyrdek/DC Shoes Skate Plaza Foundation in designing and funding the Kettering Skate Plaza, set to open in June.

"I still do what I do in schoolyards and business centers," he said. "I run from the same cops on Sunday afternoon that 14-year-old kids are running from, only I am running to my $100,000 car."

Skateboarders said they would use the modular park planned by Mitchell to prove their willingness to play by the rules.

$600,000 price tag

Meanwhile, they have started lobbying for a permanent skate plaza. Noting the $600,000 tab on the 40,000-square-foot Kettering plaza, they also have agreed to launch a fundraising campaign.

"We'll be raising as much money as possible to hand over to the Park District for the Grant Park skate plaza," said Vache Kodjavakian, president of Affiliate Skateboards.

Statistics assembled by Board-Trac, a group that measures trends in all board sports, indicate 11.9 million 12- to 24-year-old Americans rode a skateboard last year. Of those, 73 percent skated primarily on sidewalks and streets--not in parks.

National Sporting Goods Association surveys in 2003 determined there were 9 million skateboarders, compared with 5.6 million in 1993.

In contrast, the number of people playing baseball dropped to 14.6 million from 16.7 million during the same 10 years. Basketball participation dropped to 27.9 million from 29.6 million, volleyball plummeted to 10.4 million from 20.5 million, and tennis dropped to 9.6 million from 14.2 million.

"You look at hundreds of volleyball courts, tennis courts, basketball courts, baseball diamonds," O'Neill said of Park District facilities. "They deserve a skate plaza."

But no matter how many skate parks or plazas, some skateboarders will not be able to resist the challenge of new urban terrain, all parties agreed.

"As long as there are skatable surfaces, there will always be someone skating on them, but if you build that spot in Grant Park, you are going to contain it," Marrocco said. "The vast majority of them will use it."

1,188 Posts
It's more on the wish list so far. They know what they want, but don't know where the money is coming from. Right now the closest any of these plans coming to fruition would be at the south end of Grant Park just east of the Museum Park to recover some park land over the IC tracks.

243 Posts
Azn_chi_boi said:
Wow.. thats interesting... a skating park.. gotta learn how to skate
It will actually be a skate plaza, not a skate park. It will look more or less like a standard downtown plaza complete with benches, planters, etc. but it will be legal to skate there. It won't have stuff like halfpipes, ramps, etc. which are found in "traditional" skate parks.

Just yesterday I saw workers buffing the wax off of the ledges in Federal Plaza which had been applied by skateboarders.
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