Parks evolve city spaces

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Courtesy Anthony Bracali Friday Architects/Planners Artistic renderings of Paine's Park show how the space along the Schuylkill River will be transformed. The project was first conceived in 2003, and is set for a summer groundbreaking.

The Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund is working to cater to young skateboarders across the city. Its largest project to date, Paine’s Park, is set for a summer groundbreaking.

When the city and former mayor John Street deemed LOVE Park, a former international skateboarding destination, off limits to skateboarders in 2002, there was no telling that it would be the catalyst that boosted the momentum of the city’s ever-growing skateboarding scene.

But after it became clear that the city wouldn’t budge on its decision, skateboarders and community members began to ask why there wasn’t a designated destination to serve the growing needs of the skateboarding community. The result was the birth of the Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund – a nonprofit that works to bring free skate spaces to neighborhoods, and build community around them by incorporating the city’s youth in the process.

“We’re trying to get these spaces into communities,” said Claire Laver, FPSF executive director. “We have basketball, tennis courts in most communities, so why not skateparks?”

Laver, who became versed in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, added that there is, by the fund’s estimations, 60,000 skateboarders in the city and only four public skateparks in the immediate area.

“That gap’s pretty tremendous, and we’re working to fill [it],” Laver added.

Today, the fund is growing closer to delivering on the intention of its 2001 inception with a mixed-use, more than 50,000 square foot skatepark, dubbed Paine’s Park, which will sit on the banks of the Schuylkill River next to the Art Museum.

First conceived in 2003, the project was hindered by the fund’s small staff and need for massive fundraising efforts. Last year, it got a $1 million boost from a Parks and Recreation Department grant. But Laver said the nearly $5 million project is set for a summer groundbreaking and has raised the needed construction funds, but still needs to raise funds for maintenance and landscaping.

“LOVE Park is a public plaza that wasn’t designed for skateboarding but happened to be perfect for it,” Laver said. “Our park’s designed with skateboarding in mind, but the angles, materials are designed in a way to accomodate a variety of uses and we hope to see that.”

She mentioned its mixed-use intentions as an amphitheater, and as a resting spot for bikers and joggers making their way down paths along the Schuylkill River. Paine’s Park is a significant undertaking and the hope is that it will become a premier destination in the city, making an argument for its potential and present economic impact.

“[Mayor Michael Nutter] has been big on the retention of young people in the city … There’s a concern about sponsoring the creative economy,” Laver said.

She said that there are “inherent links” between skateboarding and art, as many skateboarders are also involved in graphic design, video or print art, and that the park has the potential to reverse the trend of young people leaving the city.

“In encouraging free public skate spaces, that’s another reason for young people to stay here,” Laver said.

While Paine’s Park is currently in the spotlight, the fund also works to bring low scale, smaller skateparks into smaller neighborhoods and communities, in addition to its larger and centralized endeavors. They’ve built five smaller parks in all corners of the city and beyond – from the Mount Mariah district of South Philly, to Frankford to Ambler. Laver said these 6,000 and 7,000 square foot “pocket parks carry their own economic effects,” especially in their use by out-of-towners.

“On a nice Saturday you’ll likely see license plates from New York, Maryland, Virginia – many skaters are willing and excited to check out other skate parks in the region. It’s a reason for people to come visit Philly,” Laver said.

Her argument isn’t purely anecdotal.

She cited Pop’s Skatepark in East Kensington – the poster-child for the the skateboarding advocacy argument. The park was created in a formerly abandoned lot at Trenton Avenue and East Hazzard Street, and quickly became recognized as an inner city land-use success. Laver said that police reported about a 50 percent drop in crime in a two-block radius within seven months of its opening.

“It was a completely empty lot and now about 50 kids a day are using it. There are families coming with children she said,” Laver said. “It has created a vibrant utilized space in turn reclaiming public space for the community to take pride and ownership over, and a tool for community building.”

Jesse Clayton, a local skateboarder and Pop’s primary creator, echoed Laver’s sentiments on the economic worth and community building value in creating skateparts in under-developed spaces. He mentioned that in addition to the drop in crime, with the park’s opening, four local businesses in the immediate area, like the pizza shop across the street, saw an increase in patronage.

He was first approached about building a park in the space by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. With an army of volunteers, and after raising collectively $25,000 for materials, the project was finished in about nine months. It opened in July 2009, and today is a model for other cities to replicate – following the park’s opening, it and Clayton’s efforts received both local and national accolades.

Though the NKCDC was the park’s primary funder, Clayton said he had a lot of help from the FPSF. Since founding his design company, Fifth Pocket Design, he has worked closely with the fund on its four past projects, and has plans with them for future parks, including one in Grays Ferry.

“Public skate spaces allow kids to invest more time into skateboarding, instead of spending time fighting pedestrians and the public for that square foot of street space,” Clayton said. “Public skateparks need to happen more – it helps the progression of the sport.”

There’s an educational component too. The fund provides classes at the parks throughout the city, like the “Gear for Groms” program, where kids not only learn how to skate, but, according to Laver, leadership and discipline. She added that the fund is working on partnerships with public schools to develop a more formal curriculum and partnership.

“There’s an extreme component about kids learning to skate in the spaces around them,” Laver said.

Clayton added that there may be a downside to huge projects like Paine’s Park, as opposed to smaller projects. He noted his and his company’s mission of utilizing even the smallest amount of money, which is usually the case for recreation centers and communities trying to establish their own parks.

Paine’s Park is a multimillion dollar project. But Clayton said he hasn’t spent more than $150,000 on supplies or materials constructing his five parks, yet. And with the many delays to the Paine’s project – a project incorporated with the city and with a huge budget – it may say something about the idea of communities coming together to lay cement and build a park themselves.

But beyond Paine’s Park, Laver noted that the fund’s mission is still very attuned to this idea of smaller, community oriented development, and especially the element of engaging communities around the idea of creating these spaces.

“It’s always going to be that do-it-yourself, grassroots effort with skateboarders – that’s one of the things that’s so unique about it,” Laver said. “Most people are not learning [to skateboard] with a coach, they’re learning on their own or with friends. Skateboarders are often occupying space that otherwise would not be occupied – finding pockets of space around city to bring life and energy to.”

Kara Savidge can be reached at kara.savidge@temple.edu.

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