Malcolm Smith

Seattle Center is finally getting a new skatepark. On Monday, August 6, the city council approved plans to replace the Seattle Center Pavilion—the well-used festival hub at Second Avenue North and Thomas Street—with a new 8,000-plus-square-foot skate facility.

Since January 2007, Seattle Center has been without a skatepark. SeaSk8—the skatepark formerly located in a parking lot just east of Seattle Center—was bulldozed last January to make way for the Gates Foundation's new headquarters. Since then, the Skateboard Park Advisory Committee (SPAC)—the parks department's panel set up to evaluate and recommend skatepark sites—has engaged in complicated negotiations with representatives from the Seattle Center's Century 21 Committee, formed by Mayor Greg Nickels to "help chart the course of Seattle Center for the next 20 years."

The council's unanimous approval of the site appears to be a victory for Seattle's skate community, who fought a long, hard battle to keep the new skatepark at Seattle Center. However, this victory actually represents a political loss, spotlighting the lack of clout that skaters have in this town. Last week, the council kept the skater's preferred Broad Street site off the table, selecting the Thomas Street site—kowtowing to Seattle Center heavies like the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project (EMP)—instead of looking out for the interests of Seattle's youth. EMP wouldn't comment about which sites they opposed, but Space Needle CEO Dean Nelson flatly says, "The Broad Street Green seems to be the wrong place" for a skatepark.

There are practical implications of the loss too: Skaters got a site that didn't meet their requirements. SPAC is concerned that Thomas Street is too isolated from bus lines and will not receive the same level of foot traffic to make it an integrated destination point at Seattle Center. While SPAC member Matt Johnston estimates construction at Broad Street would have been done in early 2008, the skatepark at the Thomas Street site, however, won't be done until 2009. Additionally, the Thomas Street site will require the demolition of the Seattle Center Pavilion, which is home to 233 different events every year. SPAC wanted to avoid displacing other groups at Seattle Center.

Meanwhile, the Broad Street site met all of SPAC's criteria for a new skate site. It was big enough and its surrounding green space would make it welcoming and accessible to onlookers and families alike.

But big business was against it. According to Johnston, Seattle Center repeatedly told SPAC that Broad Street was off the table because the power players at Seattle Center didn't want a skatepark in their backyard. "A lot of [us] were scratching [our] heads about why a rock 'n' roll museum would reject a counterculture," he says.

Perhaps it's because EMP and the Space Needle want the Broad Street Green to be a "gateway" to Seattle Center. EMP's parent company Vulcan would not discuss the issue. SPAC thinks the key players didn't want skaters to be part of that gateway. "The whole argument [was that the] corporate tenants thought it 'didn't stage Seattle Center well enough,'" says Ryan Barth, chair of SPAC. "I think it just goes to show that people still think skateparks are not aesthetically pleasing places, and I think they're wrong. We don't understand why no one's ever gone back and looked at Broad Street."

City Council member and head of the parks committee, David Della, kept Broad Street off the table, proposing a smaller site—far away from EMP and the "gateway to Seattle Center"—which died in council; skaters then ended up with the Thomas Street site. Coincidentally, Della received a $400 donation from Vulcan, and in the last five months, he has also received $400 from Vulcan's director of government and community relations and another $300 dollars from Vulcan's community relations manager. Della would not comment for this story.

Seattle isn't the first city to get bogged down in the politics of skatepark construction, but comparably sized cities like Denver and Vancouver, BC, have successfully incorporated skateparks into their dense downtown areas.

While SPAC agrees the Thomas Street site could work, Johnston says he's concerned about the wait for a new skatepark. "They'd have to demolish the [Pavilion]. It's a minimum two-year wait at that site. That's a long wait when you're 13." While Johnston and Barth are glad to have settled on a site, Johnston says he's had enough of SeaSk8. "We have 27 skateparks to build in this city and I'm ready to move on to the next one," he says. recommended