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New Steel Bridge Skatepark would create plaza destination in Old Town


View of proposed plaza looking north from Everett Street.
(Images: DAO Architecture)

There’s a renewed effort to build an urban plaza and skatepark at the west end of the Steel Bridge. The location — a vacant lot bordered by NW Naito Parkway, 1st Avenue, and Everett — is at the intersection of several key existing and future bike routes including the upcoming Flanders Neighborhood Greenway.

Overhead view of the site (in color).

Architects and advocates from Skaters for Portland Skateparks say improved access to and through the site is a top priority.

The proposed site has been eyed by advocates since 2001 when Portland’s first skatepark was built at Pier Park in St. Johns. In the Skatepark System Plan completed by Portland Parks & Recreation in 2008, the Steel Bridge site was considered the system’s crown jewel and one of 19 locations recommended for further study (six of which have been built). In 2011, Portland-based DAO Architecture developed a plan for the site (available here) under the guidance of the City of Portland and an advisory committee.

That 2011 plan won several awards and the project was lauded as a “21st century urban plaza that is skatable” (bikable too!). According to people close the project, the idea has always been to create not just a space for skateboarding, scootering, and BMX riding, but a public space that would be a major riverfront destination in a location that sorely needs more attention. Unfortunately two previous attempts to break ground on the plaza fell through: the first time due to politics, the second time due to the recession in 2010.

Now with renewed interest in Old Town development and momentum around infrastructure projects adjacent to the site, advocates feel like the time is right for another push. Joining DAO Architects and Skaters for Portland Skateparks is NW Skate Coalition and members of the Old Town Community Association (OTCA). Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate and former chair of the OTCA, attended a meeting to discuss the project yesterday. There’s also a new “Build the Portland Steel Bridge Skatepark” Facebook page.

Working in favor of the skatepark is broad community support and two Portland Bureau of Transportation projects: the Flanders Neighborhood Greenway and Central City in Motion Project #7.

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“There was always a push to build the jewel of our system… we have an opportunity, and I think we should pursue it.”
— Howard Weiner, Cal Skate

The Flanders bikeway is meant to connect NW 24th and Waterfront Park. Currently, Flanders comes to a dead-end at the proposed site of the skatepark. How will it cross the lot and Naito to get to the park? PBOT has tried for many years to get a new crossing between the Waterfront Park paths near the Steel Bridge and 1st Avenue, but Union Pacific Railroad and ODOT’s Rail Division have made progress very difficult. A plan we shared in 2015 showed that PBOT wants the crossing to go at the north end of the skatepark site. Money and the final design for that crossing hasn’t materialized, but with the Flanders Greenway officially starting last October, PBOT has renewed urgency to make it happen. However it remains unclear in current plans where the crossing would go. A request to PBOT for comment has not been returned.

The Central City in Motion plan adopted by council in November also has implications for the skatepark site. Project #7 will reconfigure NW Everett to include an enhanced bus lane and — most importantly — would decommission the existing on-ramp that goes through the skatepark site. Removal of that ramp was listed as the top action for progress in the 2011 DAO plan.

While momentum has ramped up, challenges remain. The price tag, at one time thought to be around $8 million, means advocates will have to seek private funding — especially given the current budget deficit at the Parks Bureau. And while the location is ideal in some ways — Tom Miller, founder of Skaters for Portland Skateparks said, “From a transportation perspective it’s perfect” — it also suffers from a complicated web of jurisdictional boundaries. PBOT manages the city streets, Parks is in charge of the riverfront paths, and ODOT owns the ramps on and off of the Steel Bridge (and their Region 1 headquarters overlooks the site).

“I’m really rooting for this! I think we are ready for a community focused public project that invests in our future and creates something beautiful for future generations.”— Catherine Odell, Saturdary Market vendor and NW Skate Coalition board member

For Old Town Community Association member Ryan Hashagen, those challenges can be overcome. “The time is right to get it done,” he shared today. Hashagen says the ad hoc group working on the project thinks a good chunk of funding could come from Prosper Portland, the city’s development commission. As detailed in The Oregonian last fall, a major Old Town/Chinatown redevelopment plan passed under former Mayor Charlies Hales still has $50 million in allocated funds that have yet to be spent. Citing its ability to activate public space and add connectivity to the neighborhood, Hashagen said, “The skatepark ticks several boxes that make it compete well for funding through the Old Town Action Plan.”

Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate skateboard shop in Old Town/Chinatown, said he’s excited the project is getting a new look. Nearly a decade after the recession killed the project, Weiner said Portland has grown and is in a much different place. “There was always a push to build the jewel of our system,” he shared on the phone with me today. “And with skateboarding coming to the Olympics in 2020 and the future of the Burnside Skatepark uncertain [due to a major seismic retrofit project], we have an opportunity, and I think we should pursue it.”

Catherine Odell owns a business that has a vending space at the nearby Saturday Market. She’s also a board member of the NW Skate Coaltion. “I’m really rooting for this,” she shared with me via email today. “Not only does it activate an unused space, it creates a natural flow between classic Portland attractions like the Saturday Market and the Chinese Garden, as well as creating the perfect link to crossing to the East Side and landing in the heart of Rip City!”

Odell thinks the new plaza and skatepark would make Portland proud of itself again. Why now? “Portland has undergone a lot of change, and a lot of that growth has placed more barriers between us. I think we are ready for a community focused public project like this one, that invests in our future and creates something beautiful for future generations.”

For more on the project, peruse the 2011 study (funded by the City of Portland) and follow SkatePortland.org. In related skatepark news, don’t miss the Disposable Youth photo show at See See Motorcycles (1642 NE Sandy) featuring the work of Dean Dickinson on March 2nd where half of photo sales will benefit the Powell Park Skatepark.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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