Portland skaters and BMXers may soon need to make room at the halfpipe for enthusiastic local politicians who want in on the action. At least, that was the vibe from the commissioners and Mayor Ted Wheeler yesterday after they heard testimony from people calling for the city to support the Steel Bridge Skatepark, a longtime white whale for local skate advocates. (Wheeler even suggested he and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty go in on a skateboard together – Hardesty said they could “talk about it offline.”)
But we’re talking about Portland politics here, and outward displays of enthusiasm from our politicians don’t always mean action is soon to follow. There are signs of turbulence simmering just underneath City Council’s enthusiasm that could threaten to undermine what skatepark advocates have been working on for so long.
Advocates have been pushing for a covered skatepark in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood for years. The Steel Bridge Skatepark is included in the Portland Parks and Recreation’s 2008 Skatepark System Plan, a first-of-a-kind document that reflects the idealism Portland planners had back in the aughts. But momentum fizzled out over time as the recession tanked the local economy and politicians cooled on the idea.
Proponents of the Steel Bridge Skatepark didn’t give up, however, and they’re back with a new plan and optimism that there may now be the political will to finally get the project done. The skatepark has a hefty price tag of $10 million, but advocates make a good case for why it’s a strong city investment opportunity, and they have business owners’ support and some Prosper Portland funding to sweeten the deal.
The time is now
Skaters want to get moving on this as soon as possible because when the Burnside Bridge replacement project gets underway in the next few years, the famous DIY Burnside Skatepark on Portland’s east side will be unusable for quite some time. Advocates also want the Steel Bridge Skatepark to have a different, more welcoming vibe than the Burnside Skatepark across the river, which has advanced terrain and isn’t necessarily the best spot for newcomers to practice their kick-flips or rollerskating tricks.
For the past several months, Steel Bridge Skatepark champions have amped up their work to get this new skating infrastructure built. Back in July, advocates put shovel to dirt in a “symbolic groundbreaking” for the skatepark to indicate their commitment to the project, with or without the city’s help. But this wasn’t a secretive protest taking place in the middle of the night – the skatepark fans knew they had allies in the city. There’s been political support for this skatepark in the past, and it’s hard to imagine anyone in City Hall would brazenly shoot down a project meant to bring joie de vivre back to the Portland city center – especially one with such a diverse coalition backing it.
The people who spoke at City Hall yesterday morning emphasized that this skatepark would be more than just an expensive concrete halfpipe in the ground for Tony Hawk-types. They said supporting construction would be a way for City Council to walk the walk on the values they claim to herald, like investment in active transportation infrastructure and equity for marginalized groups.
The Street Trust’s André Lightsey-Walker brought his expertise as an active transportation strategy whiz and long-time Portland skateboarder, spelling out exactly why Portland’s policymakers should embrace the project as a transportation and city revitalization project. Lightsey-Walker has been petitioning the city for new skating infrastructure since he was 13, and said getting around the city on a skateboard is what eventually led him to a career in transportation policy.
“If completed, the Steel Bridge Skatepark will stand as a monument to our city’s commitment to welcoming inclusive and activated public spaces. It will establish a model for the rest of the world to follow, which is a characteristic I find foundational to the City of Portland,” Lightsey-Walker said. “Skate parks are a hub for multigenerational connection. They offer a safe place for self expression and they naturally encourage active transportation.”
Joining Lightsey-Walker to testify at yesterday’s meeting were three equally persuasive people, all of whom represented diverse interests. These were Janae Hagel, a member of Community in Bowls (CIB) Portland, a group whose “mission is to increase access to skateparks for those who are often underrepresented in the skatepark scene”; Desiree Jefferson, an advocate for racially and gender-inclusive skate communities who heralded skating as a mental health treatment and Jessie Burke, a downtown business owner who chairs the Portland Old Town Community Association.
When something has the support of active transportation and climate activists, advocates for racial and LGBTQ+ justice and downtown business owners, that’s a golden opportunity for Portland politicians, and they seem to have realized it.
“It’s about activation. It’s about the future. It’s about inclusion. It’s about physical fitness and health. It’s about finding healthy alternatives for young people to engage in the central city core,” Wheeler said. “And it speaks to an opportunity to take an area that’s historically been fairly blighted and turn it into something that the community can be really proud of.”
But that support doesn’t mean it’s all smooth skating from here on out. One thing City Hall may be wary of is the project’s cost, but based on the commissioner responses at yesterday’s Council meeting, it appears what could hinder the project more than the price is the undefined relationship between different local agencies and bureaus that consistently chokes up Portland projects.
After the four Steel Bridge Skatepark advocates gave their testimony, Wheeler asked which agency actually owns the parcel of land in Old Town this skatepark will be located. Turns out, the lot is co-owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Sensing dread over a looming jurisdictional battle between the two agencies, Tom Miller – who currently serves as Wheeler’s director of sustainability and livability but has been involved in skate advocacy in other roles for two decades – jumped in to assure everyone that ODOT is all good with the project.
“Although the formalities have not been established, the agreement is in place,” Miller said.
But for Hardesty, who oversees PBOT, this raised some alarm bells. She wanted to make it clear that just because the transportation bureau owns the land doesn’t mean they’ll be responsible for maintaining the park, mentioning they already have a $4 billion maintenance backlog to get through. Hardesty said commissioners will sort these logistics out internally.
“I certainly don’t want the public to worry about who owns what,” Hardesty said.
Commissioner Dan Ryan asked which bureau would take ownership of the property, questioning why Hardesty would bring attention to PBOT’s maintenance backlog if the project is a Parks & Recreation responsibility.
“You mentioned the backlog of maintenance, and I know you like to stick that in, so that confused me,” Ryan said, eliciting an audible reaction from the audience for the lightly chiding remark. “I’m just learning about this in the real live moment and I think some of the public might be as well. So I thought I’d ask these clarifying questions so we could figure out how we move forward.”
Whatever City Council decides to do, it’s clear that there’s enough community support for this skatepark that its momentum isn’t going anywhere. A skatepark in motion stays in motion regardless of governmental battles happening behind the scenes, and Portland’s skatepark advocates have shown a willingness to go it alone in the past.
Burke, the Old Town Community Association chair, said the skatepark team will move forward and use Prosper Portland funds to complete pre-development land analysis and the first phase of architectural drawings.
“We’re actually not asking for anything in this presentation,” Burke said. “We’re just thanking you in advance for your support in continuing to cheer for this project and finding creative ways to help Old Town repair and rebuild. That is truly the only thing giving our community hope.”
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at email@example.com
“Who going to maintain the Skate Park?”
Duh, the City should!
Another prime example of why we need to pass charter reform…
It doesn’t really sound like there is an issue. There was some confusion around Hardesty bringing up the PBOT maintenance backlog, when it was clear to everyone that Parks would be responsible for the park. How would charter form have prevented this? It’s PBOT/ODOT land that will be transferring to Parks. The discussion above seems reasonable.
A City Manager would likely have had the discussion ahead of time and made the decision on who’s responsible going forward.
As we currently have it bureaus don’t go talk to other bureaus that aren’t run by the same overseeing Commissioner without permission from both Commissioners. Some Commissioners are more strict about this unwritten rule than others. I’ll leave it to your imagination which one(s).
It seems like the teenagers of Portland would be better served by the City building multiple, smaller skate parks in the neighborhoods where they live instead of one central one that they would have to travel to. Is anyone asking the 15-year old skaters what they want?
Skaters are not just teens, AJ
This proposal has been reinvigorated by folks who skate, so I think it’s fair to say it’s good news for skaters.
The city needs a skate park in the shape and size of a velodrome, but only for fixed gear bikes. How cool would that be?
Who picks up the human excrement, trash and needles?
Look, I know you want a place to play, but maybe it could be in one of the many vacant businesses, that used to thrive in a once beautiful city.
I’m going to vote every one of our tone deaf leaders out of office, and I hope Portland voters wise the F€#$& UP!