Kate Martin is pushing the city to build safe, centrally located skateparks for all of Seattle's skaters. Until those parks are built Martin's kids—and her neighbors' kids—skate in a park she built for them in her own front yard.
Navigating the walkway to Kate Martin's front door is an exercise in agility. Unless it's pouring rain, you'll need to dodge Martin's two sons and half a dozen of their friends, some of whom will be skateboarding on the sloping footpath and its adjacent ramps, while other kids stand on the sidelines, cheering. With two boys itching to skate, and few safe, nearby places to practice their sport, Martin did what few other parents would do: This past winter, she landscaped her front yard into a mini skate spot.
On ﬁrst glance, the small, sloped space looks like a sculpted garden. Technically speaking, that's what it is: an intricately landscaped yard with angular concrete terraces and benches, curved retaining walls, and swooping walkways. But to anyone who's stepped on a skateboard, Martin's concrete-laced front garden is waiting to be carved up by four wheels. As long as kids bring helmets, get permission from their parents, and are on their best behavior, Martin doesn't mind if they grind all afternoon long. She even supplies refreshments.
Martin, a Greenwood neighborhood activist, mother, and landscape designer, has merged her roles and set her sights on a new goal: safe, accessible skateparks in every neighborhood. She's a core member of Parents for Skateparks, and a familiar name to those who battled to save the Ballard skatepark, and those now planning a potential new skatepark at Lower Woodland Park, near Green Lake. After years as a community activist, 47-year-old Martin knows how to navigate the city's political system to achieve whatever it is she's set her sights on. These days, her mission is quality skateparks for Seattle's skateboarders, even if she has to build her own while the city catches up.
"My mom was just like, 'We should put a ramp in my front yard,'" says her 12-year-old, Emilio, who's been skating for three years. "It wasn't even our idea!"
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Last Friday, May 20, Martin's yard was buzzing with adolescent energy. Boys re-adjusted a portable metal rail, while another ran a bar of wax along a curve of concrete to grease it up for skidding across. One of Martin's boys-her other son is 14 years old, and both have mops of brown hair-roamed around with a video camera, ready to capture his friends' stunts on ﬁlm. (Martin's house, where she and her husband have lived for 20 years, is a kid-magnet in more ways than one-multiple guitars are propped up against the living room couch, and she encourages the boys to do spray paint art in the backyard.)
Inside, Martin-a small-statured woman who, like her boys, is quick with a welcoming smile for her guests-and three of her skate-parent allies sit around the dining room table and tell me about one of their goals: making sure the city's future skateparks are built in accessible locations. "Something like 85 percent of skaters are under 18. I believe 60 percent are under 16, with the average age being 13 or 14. Ten to 20 percent are female," Martin points out. Seattle's current skate facilities, and immediate plans for additional skate space, don't serve those kids. "The sites that Seattle Parks chooses seem oriented toward 200 lb. male adult skaters." The hidden spots have a dangerous, fend-for-yourself atmosphere, instead of an open, safe-for-everyone vibe.
Jennifer Stephens, another mom-she skateboards, too, and used to be a competitive mountain-biker-points to her small daughter, quietly sitting at the table with the grown-ups. "She should feel welcome at a skatepark."
The city is planning to build a skatepark in Lower Woodland Park near Green Lake but the site doesn't meet the parents' criteria. Dubbed the "chips" site, for its former use as a wood-chip dumping ground, the space is at the end of a maintenance road, shoved up against wooded area. As far as the parents are concerned, it's a throwaway parcel of city land.
A few miles west, the city plans to build another skatepark, a replacement for soon-to-be-demolished SeaSk8 park at Seattle Center. This location is equally problematic, Martin insists. It's a vacant lot on Elliott Avenue West, next to a wastewater treatment center, between a seven-lane road and a set of railroad tracks.
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Parents for Skateparks meets on the second Wednesday of every month for a potluck and a strategy session. If they're meeting at Martin's house, their kids skate outside while the parents talk.
The parents' group was born during the ﬁght to save the Ballard Bowl-it originated as Parents for the Ballard Bowl. With that battle over, they began lobbying for more skate parks. But for the dozen or so core members of Parents for Skateparks, simply building more skateable square footage in town isn't enough: They want the city to build quality skate parks in decent locations, places where parents can feel comfortable letting their kids skate for a few hours.
Led in part by Martin-who's sent several letters to the Parks Department, city council members, and neighborhood councils, saying things like "Please, let's not make these kids think they're second class citizens by giving them throwaway locations in which to skate"-Parents for Skateparks has been campaigning against the Lower Woodland "chips" site. That site, they point out, was chosen with little, if any, public input. "There was no outreach to the Green Lake community at all," says mom Pam David. The space was presented to the city's skaters during the battle over Ballard, almost as a peace offering. City ofﬁcials have committed $350,000 toward construction, but the city needs to raise at least an additional $400,000 to build the park.
Until the rest of the money materializes, the parents are seizing the delayed construction as an opportunity to press for an alternate site. They think they've found one: a grassy, empty ﬁeld a few blocks away, between West Green Lake Way and Aurora Avenue. There, a skatepark would be accessible and visible from the road. Skaters using the space would be a part of the busy recreational path around Green Lake, instead of hidden away. And there would be space for parents and other spectators to hang out and watch.
So far, the parents' effort to steer people toward the alternate space has met with some success. The Skatepark Advisory Committee (SPAC), the Parks Department's ofﬁcial skateboard body, has looked at both the ofﬁcial site and the suggested alternatives, rating the sites on things like access to transit, visibility from the street, whether men and women of all ages would feel safe at the location, and neighborhood support. The open space between the lake and Aurora, dubbed the Aurora Triangle, rated higher than the "chips" site.
But while SPAC was busy comparing the sites, the Parks Board of Directors got a letter from Martin, outlining the case for the Aurora Triangle site. Immediately, at their April 14 meeting, the board voted to squash the idea, infuriating parents and SPAC leaders. SPAC co-chair Matthew Lee Johnston attended the April 28 board meeting to give the Parks department an earful. The board, he said, should hold off on skatepark location decisions until the appropriate committee- SPAC-submits its recommendation.
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Most of the city's politically active skaters have spent the last several years focused on two things: saving the Ballard Bowl, and building more skateparks. Getting the city to where it is now-willing to build a skatepark near Green Lake, looking at other corners of the city for more skateparks-took time and effort. Some of these newly politicized skaters are nervous about Parents for Skateparks' stated goals: They don't want to risk derailing a Green Lake skatepark by re-opening up a lengthy site-selection process. They fear the new skatepark could be processed to death.
But the parents point out that a lack of money for the Green Lake skatepark has already pushed back groundbreaking. Why not use the extra time to make sure that when construction starts, it's on the best skatepark the city can build, and in a well-suited location?
The Green Lake park, after all, will be looked to when the city considers builing other skateparks. If it's tucked away in an isolated part of Lower Woodland Park, it could become a magnet for grafﬁti, drinking, even ﬁghts-exactly the sort of things folks in other neighborhoods would use to argue against building additional skateparks. But if the Green Lake skatepark is set up for success-if it's visible, accessible, and well-designed-skaters will have better luck ﬁnding support for building additional skateparks all over town. "Everyone's going to be raising their hand and saying, 'Hey, where's our skatepark?'" Martin says.
There are plenty of things that go into a successful park. Great design and construction, by a reputable skatepark company like Seattle-based Grindline, means the skaters will respect the park. A space big enough to accommodate lots of people, of both genders, with a range of skills, is key. Younger or less experienced skaters need a place where they can skate without being intimidated by older skaters. It's also important to have elements challenging enough to keep skaters engaged in the park for years.
A good location means everyone-from a 7-year-old just learning how to skate to a teenage girl looking to try out a half-pipe to a grown man keeping his skills honed, plus spectators-feels welcomed. Sticking a skatepark between busy roads and railroad tracks, or at the end of a service road, isolates the park, making it less welcoming.
And there's no reason why skateparks shouldn't be squarely in the middle of the urban landscape. A new waterfront park-replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct-would be a great site for a downtown skatepark, skate activist Johnston has suggested. Sites near bustling business districts-Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, for example, or a lot near the West Seattle Junction-would put skaters in the hearts of their communities. Despite its proximity to a stinky dumpster, and its cage of chain-link fence, the Ballard Bowl (RIP), just two blocks from Market Street, "was in an amazing location," point out Daren and Scott Shinn.
A recent essay in Landscape Architecture magazine, by Tom Miller of Skaters for Portland Skateparks, took a look at poorly sited skateparks, like one on a dead-end road in Canby, Oregon, on the edge of an industrial zone. Canby has had to install security cameras to help police the space, and cops are frequently called to the park. Martin has been passing around Miller's article along with Parents for Skateparks' "Great Skateparks Checklist," which they've posted on their website, www.parents4sk8parks.org. "First, skaters need to be able to access the skatepark without dependence on Mom or Dad or mass transit. (Parents are typically working and unavailable to shuttle kids to and from skateparks)," Miller writes. "The closer to schools or other youth centers, the better."
"Second, it is important to acknowledge that teens-skaters or otherwise-can be prone to doing foolish and sometimes dangerous things. Adult supervision is critical," Miller continues. "Siting skateparks within existing high-use areas, such as busy parks or near town centers, establishes the best patterns of oversight. A steady ﬂow of spontaneous spectators and passersby creates consistent de facto supervision, which rewards skaters with a needed sense of community inclusion as well as safety and security."
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Back at Martin's house-the kids haven't given the skateable yard an ofﬁcial name yet-teenagers are whizzing around long after the parents have ﬁnished talking business. Her son is ﬁlming a friend sliding across a low rail. "They come inside to watch the tape, then head back out," Martin says, standing just outside her front door, next to a row of skateboards lined up against the house. Neighbors frequently stop by to check out the action, which the skaters love. It's exactly the sort of healthy atmosphere Martin would love to see replicated on a larger scale all over the city-starting at Green Lake.
Martin's younger son Emilio takes a break from skating his favorite part of his front yard, a little "clamshell" shaped swoop of concrete. "Every day when we're skating," he tells me, "people drive by and say, 'You guys must have some pretty cool parents.'"