New 'Action' Park Rolls Closer to Reality
Skaters, BMXers collaborate on new digs
There's a small stretch of battered concrete off Shoal Creek Boulevard. On a section that's not used as parking for Austin Independent School District's House Park Athletics Facility at Shoal Creek and 12th, there's an abandoned tennis court with a few old wooden ramps. This is what passes for Austin's only official Downtown skate park. Next month, the city will break ground here on a state-of-the-art skateboard and BMX facility. This isn't a case of "If you build it, they will come." The skaters and bikers are already here, and when it opens early next year, the new House Park facility will fill a longstanding gap in the city's park inventory. Parks Planning Department Project Coordinator Gary Gregson calls it "an important addition. ... I personally feel that skaters have been underserved, and we have a lot of skateboarders in the community that have been pushing for this for a long time."
The new 27,000-square-foot park, designed by Canadian firm New Line Skateparks, will combine a 7,000-square-foot bowl with a 20,000-square-foot street-style plaza. There will be spectator seating, trees for shade, and, as part of the city's Art in Public Places initiative, a skateable 12-foot metallic wave designed by local sculptor/skater Chris Levack, which House Park advocate and Tekgnar skate store owner Laurie Pevey called "a metaphor for the motion of skateboarding." With the addition of trellises inspired by fossil trilobites found in the area, Pevey said the park will "really relate to Shoal Creek."
For Austin's action-sports enthusiasts, the park has been a long time coming. Pevey recalled, "We started back in the late Nineties, back when [former Mayor] Will Wynn was a City Council member." She donated the current Downtown ramps as a stopgap while the city developed a plan for three parks within 10 years – a plan that has yet to fully materialize. The first, a skate-only facility at Mabel Davis Park in South Austin, opened in 2005. While the Mabel Davis site is popular, Pevey described it as "cookie-cutter ... a traditional inground cement park." Even with council support for a park that she described as "unique to Austin, something Downtown where business people could be on their lunch and there'd be skateboarding going on," the House Park plan got caught in "a crazy bureaucratic process," she said.
Voters approved the $1.5 million in construction bonds for the park, and it took another three years to finalize the design. Even after the land was selected, Pevey said, "there were issues with the floodplain, issues with Austin Community College owning part of the property, issues with concerns raised by Heritage Society of Austin. It was one group after the next, but finally they agreed that we're going to go ahead and do it."
Aside from serving the local community, a well-designed park could attract skateboarders and BMXers from around the nation. Former professional BMX rider Joe Rich moved to Austin in 1997 to launch his Terrible One bike company and has seen facilities like the one planned for House Park pop up around the state while Austin lagged behind. He's optimistic that if it gets a good reputation, people will travel from around the state and beyond to use House Park. "When cement is done right, there's a flow to it," he said. "It's kind of a combination of riding trails and riding ramps, but you get something that you don't get from just one."
What will make House Park different from Mabel Davis and most other urban facilities is that it will be for both skateboard and BMX use. All too often, that's an either/or situation because of tensions between the two communities. While skaters and BMXers can use the same obstacles, Pevey said, "bicycles have sharp objects, they have pegs, and they destroy the concrete edges. So the whole thing with Mabel [Davis] is that we were saying, 'Look, the bikes will be coming here and they'll chip all this stuff up,' and it happened."
Rich described BMXers' exclusion as more about policy than practicalities. When new parks are built, he said, "a lot of times there'll be a couple of skaters that go to the meetings, but once it gets approved there'll be a hundred skaters saying, 'We got this done, this is ours, and you're not allowed.'" The difference with House Park was that the BMX community got involved in the discussions early on and collaborated to get something they both wanted. Rich said, "I was lucky that a couple of my friends who skate brought it to my attention that the bond was coming up before any of the meetings happened." Rich was also optimistic that improved park design and changes in bike construction will reduce the damage done. "Plastic pedals are a perfectly normal thing now, and there are plastic pegs and plastic bar ends. So if a bike falls, it's not going to do any damage."
The opening of the park is the second big gain for Downtown action-sports fans, coming after the recent change in policy over what bikers call the Ninth Street trails but what appears on city maps as Duncan Park. Split in half by West Ninth Street, BMXers and off-road bikers built their own dirt ramps in the southern portion without city approval. Project coordinator Gregson said, "At one point the Parks Department tried to eliminate that and close it down, but we ended up allowing them to stay." With the city's adoption of the ramps and its February agreement to let the Texas Rollergirls' flat-track Roller Derby league practice in existing parks, former competitive skateboarder Chip Wright applauded the improving relationship between skaters, skateboarders, bikers, and the Parks Department. Currently a commentator for the Texas Rollergirls, Wright said, "Now the city is allowing [action-sports enthusiasts] to use parkland and parks areas that we had already been using without their authorization."
Parks and Recreation Board President Linda Guerrero credited Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley for the new mood of collaboration. Guerrero said, "She has created opportunities for stakeholders who have previously been unable to communicate with administrators on their needs." She added, "We have to look at the greater needs of Austin as it becomes more urban, and I really feel that the director's leadership has helped foster a whole new direction in recreational sports."
Wright proposed that the city shouldn't see this new development as a long-deferred promise fulfilled but as a first step. If the long-awaited third park is built, Austin has other action-sports communities – street hockey, wheelchair rugby, and hardcourt bike polo – that could benefit from building a truly mixed-use facility. "Austin has the opportunity to be number one for all things youth and extreme sports," he said.
Both Wright and Rich suggested that, as well as building a third large park, the city could make existing and underused neighborhood facilities more skater-friendly by adding ramps and other skateable fixtures. Plus, Rich added, such facilities can be a real bargain in tough budgetary times. He said: "There's not someone that needs to mow it or water it. Once they're built, they pretty much take care of themselves."