Skate park scuttlebutt
Prime site sidelined by committee
By Chris Busby
Frustration is mounting over the city’s delay in funding a new public park for skateboarders, BMX bikers, rollerbladers and other wheeled freestylers. The matter may come to a head on June 18, when the City Council is expected to vote on an order to move forward with the park regardless of the concerns some councilors have over its location.
As The Bollard reported last fall, it seemed city officials were ready to get the project started on the site of some abandoned tennis courts at Dougherty Field, near the 1-295/Congress Street interchange in Libbytown. A city committee had spent two years searching for a site suitable to build a new park before determining that the Dougherty Field courts met the most selection criteria.
The Forum Park skate park on Marginal Way, in Bayside, was removed months ago.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that the old skateboard park was torn down before a new one could be built,” said Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, the quasi-municipal organization that promotes and helps maintain downtown.
“For years, we had skateboarders downtown endangering pedestrians and taking over parks,” Beitzer continued. Complaints from downtown business owners have significantly increased in the past few months, she said.
The hold up is happening in the Council’s little-noticed Health and Human Services Committee. That committee is chaired by District 3 Councilor Donna Carr, whose district includes the Doughtery Field site.
Carr could not be reached for comment, but Councilor Ed Suslovic, a member of the committee, said soil testing is being done at an alternative site at Back Cove, on athletic fields not far from where the interstate passes over Preble Street Extension.
Suslovic said the Back Cove site seems preferable to Dougherty Field because it’s “served directly by public transit,” is close to the Hannaford supermarket and other food outlets, and has “more visibility” than the Dougherty Field courts.
The city has pledged $75,000 to build a new park, with the understanding that park proponents will raise additional money for the project, which could cost twice that sum or more in total. Suslovic said he thinks it will be easier to raise funds for the park if it’s at the more “visible” Back Cove location.
Eli Cayer, a citizen member of the city committee that searched for new sites, is leading a campaign, called Momentum, to raise private funding for a new park. He said the group has already raised $10,000, but this recent uncertainty over the park’s location has effectively halted the campaign’s progress.
The Health and Human Services Committee’s decision to explore Back Cove as a potential site took Cayer by surprise. “It was just weird,” he said.
According to Cayer, Carr “didn’t like the idea it was going to happen at Dougherty Field,” and said some of her constituents were concerned about it, too.
“There’s always going to be somebody who’s not into it,” said Cayer, who noted that the Dougherty site was chosen , in part, because it’s hundreds of feet from the nearest house. Concerns the park will be a noise nuisance are unfounded, he added, because sound from the park is muffled by the near constant hum of traffic passing on the interstate nearby.
Following discussion of those issues, Carr “shifted her tactics,” said Cayer, recounting an earlier committee meeting on the matter. “She said she loved to walk around that area and didn’t want to see the wildflowers disappear. OK, whatever, crazy person. She was reaching for straws.”
Then, “somehow, Ed Suslovic got on board,” said Cayer. “He is probably now the chief advocate against Dougherty Field, [but] he didn’t even have reasons. He said it’d be a huge mistake, a recipe for disaster… So we’re like, ‘You’re crazy.'”
The third member of the committee is Councilor Jim Cohen, who did not return a call from The Bollard seeking comment. Following Suslovic’s suggestion of the Back Cove site, “somehow, somewhere, through some backdoor policy, all of a sudden Jim Cohen’s involved [in supporting consideration of Back Cove],” recalled Cayer.
“I don’t know a city councilor who’s more far removed from the people,” Cayer said of Cohen. “Art, to him, is Merrill [Auditorium].” (Cayer considers skating and biking at such parks “not only a sport, but an art form.”)
The Back Cove field was considered during the site-search committee’s work, said city Parks & Recreation Department Director Denise Clavette, but it was passed over partly because youth and high school soccer teams use the field to practice. If the field is converted into a skate park, Clavette said the city will “find places” for teams displaced by it.
The Dougherty Field site has already been assessed and determined to be suitable, said Clavette, though she added that an earlier plan for the field complex did not include a skate park.
The Back Cove site will be subject to several considerations, including what Clavette termed “wetlands issues.” Such issues could complicate any plan to pour thousands of square feet of concrete beside the tidal cove.
The Dougherty Field site is still an option, Suslovic said, but in contrast to Back Cove, “there’s just not much else around there. You sort of have to make a special trip down there just to skateboard.” Locating the park at Back Cove “integrates it more into the fabric of downtown.”
“I truly believe, and the skateboard community believes, that regardless of location, the skateboarders will come,” said Clavette.
Suslovic also said he wants to see the results of a Parks & Recreation users’ survey before picking a skate park site. And he said another committee’s work on elementary school consolidation could make the idea of putting the park at Dougherty Field moot.
That committee is the so-called 3×3 Committee, a group made up of three city councilors (including Suslovic) and three school board members. Suslovic said Dougherty Field is “one of two active sites [under consideration] for a new elementary school.”
The school department’s West School Program for students with behavioral and emotional challenges is administered in a building adjacent to Dougherty Field. One of the options before the 3×3 Committee is to build a new elementary school where the field complex and West School’s building sit.
That decision carries implications for other elementary schools, like Nathan Clifford and Longfellow, which could be renovated under some options being considered. The former site of the Baxter elementary school, off Ocean Avenue, is the second location being considered for construction of a new school.
The logistics – and, especially, the politics – involved in this consolidation effort could make an already lengthy process even longer. Asked if the 3×3 Committee will make a decision regarding a new school at Dougherty Field in the summer, Suslovic quipped, “Summer of which year?”
Though the 3×3 Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee are expected to make progress on both fronts in the coming weeks, City Councilor Dave Marshall is introducing an order to move ahead with a skate park at Dougherty Field, Marshall confirmed this past week.
The vote on that order will likely happen at the Council’s June 18 meeting, he said. Its prospects are, as of yet, unclear.