Grind pays off: Skateboard advocates make headway in Minneapolis

Ben Vaske jumps onto a rail at Elliot Park, the city's public skate park Downtown. The park will be upgraded this fall, according to the MPRB.

On a sunny Monday in May, Tyler Kirksey brought his skateboard to Armatage Park. It’s a familiar place for Kirksey, 19, who has been skating for about seven years. He attended nearby Southwest High School and improved his skills by skating at Armatage. The place has some sentimental value to him.

The skate park there is great for learning, he said, but if he could he’d improve the “flow” of the park, making the transitions between the five elements there smoother and more instinctive.

“It’s really a bare bones type of park,” he said.

Armatage Park hosts the only public skate park in Southwest Minneapolis, and on any semi-decent day, groups of kids and young adults come to test their mettle and improve their technique. But in the coming years, more skate parks are likely to start popping up in Southwest and across the city thanks to a series of plans the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has undertaken in recent years and the dogged work of the skate community.

For local skate advocates, it’s a long time coming.

Tyler Kirksey grinds on a box feature at Armatage Park, the city's lone public skate park in Southwest. Photo by Andrew Hazzard
Tyler Kirksey grinds on a box feature at Armatage Park, the city’s lone public skate park in Southwest. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Increased advocacy

In 2007, Paul Forsline’s then 10-year-old son approached the Lynnhust Area Recreational Council with two friends with a pitch for more skate parks in public spaces.

His children are adults now, but 12 years later Forsline is still in the fight. He helped launch City of Skate, a nonprofit group that advocates for public skate spaces in Minneapolis and across the state. Over the years, City of Skate has lobbied local and state bodies, particularly the MPRB, to ask for what they see other recreational activities as having — public spaces.

Being taken seriously has been a battle, according to Forsline, due to a general stigma around skating that it’s a counterculture activity. When he got involved, he met people who had been in the fight for years, like Scott Oreschnick, a Minneapolis native and Kingfield resident who owns the Cal Surf store in East Calhoun.

“We realized at some point or another that this would be a long process,” Forsline said.

Skateboarders have been trying to get recognized by the city for decades, according to Oreschnick, who recalls skaters protesting on Nicollet Mall in the 1980s. But for years, they weren’t taken seriously.

“We also face the difficulty of skateboarders being younger and not knowing how to advocate for themselves,” Oreschnick said.

Philip Schwartz has been skating in Southwest Minneapolis for nearly 20 years. At times, he said, advocating for skate parks has been a lonely road.

Organized sports typically have a lot of parent involvement, which leads those parents to lobby for fields and courts, Schwartz said. Skateboarding is most popular among teens and is more independent so lobbying and organizing isn’t their forte.

“They just kind of want to skate,” he said.

Skateboarding has become more recognized as a legitimate sport in recent years, globally and locally. It will make its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2020 games in Tokyo. The X Games, which hosts the sport’s premier competitions worldwide, has held its summer games in Minneapolis the past two years, and will be back again in 2019 and 2020.

A seat at the table

Skate advocates began to exercise their power like other grassroots groups — by organizing, showing up at Park Board meetings and lobbying elected officials. Over time, that’s paid off in the form of a series of master plans developed in recent years by the MPRB.

In 2013, City of Skate got a real seat at the table and partnered with the MPRB to develop the Skate Park Activity Plan, which was passed by the Park Board in 2018.

The activity plan calls for 18 new skate parks across the city, with three or four in each of the six park districts. It was a huge step for skate advocates, but the plan is not funded; it serves as a guide to implement new parks when funding becomes available.

“The question is when does the plan become a reality,” Forsline said.

The Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet Regional Park Master Plan, approved in 2017, calls for a regional skate park on the northwest side of Bde Maka Ska. But right now, the project is unfunded, and advocates are concerned that if more skate parks don’t come online soon, people will check out of the lobbying process.

“We don’t want a whole generation of skateboarders to lose faith,” Oreschnick said.

The city has six skate parks, one in each of the six Park Board districts, but Forsline said they’re not exactly inspiring spaces.

“Right now the six skate parks we have are mostly glorified tennis courts,” said Colleen O’Dell, a planner with the MPRB who helped develop the skate park activity plan and is the project manager for the Southwest Area Master Plan.

The lack of parks designated for skateboarding in a way forces skaters into other spaces like streets, plazas and tennis courts, which has caused tension over the years, O’Dell said.

The Skate Park Activity Plan is hoping to change that. The plan references other cities that have more public art integrated into skate parks and looks to cold weather cities, such as Calgary, Alberta, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, to learn how other cold climates have built outdoor parks to last with cast-in-place concrete.

Now, some skate park improvements and additions are starting to come to Minneapolis. The MPRB announced in May it will start work this fall on a series of improvements at Elliot Park’s skate park in Downtown. The already passed master plans call for four skate parks in the South Minneapolis service area and five in North. Skate parks designed as part of service area master plans are funded primarily via the MPRB’s capital improvement program and  the 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan, which allocates an additional $11 million for maintenance and improvements at local parks through 2037. Additional funding for service area master plans may come from grants, donations and partnerships with private groups.

At Central Gym Park in South Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the X Games and the Tony Hawk Foundation have all issued grant dollars to make the proposed skate park a reality in the diverse Central neighborhood.

The Southwest Area Master Plan, which has yet to be passed, had proposals for new skate parks or skate spots (smaller features integrated into the park) at four park locations in its final preferred concepts. Among those proposed designs is a skate spot Smith Triangle at 24th & Hennepin, which Oreschnick said has been a famous unsanctioned spot for skaters for years. Skate parks are proposed at the 28th Street Tot Lot in Whittier, Painter Park in Lyndale and an all-wheel park—accessible for bikes, scooters, roller blades and wheelchairs— at Pershing Field Park in Fulton. The plan calls for an expansion of the Armatage skate park.

A space of their own

Schwartz, a Southwest native and resident, has been skating most his life, but it wasn’t until he began to work on his degree in urban studies at the University of Minnesota that he started to think of the way skate parks can connect city spaces.

“You really get an intimate connection with the city through skateboarding,” he said.

Other than Armatage Park, most skate spots in Southwest come and go, Schwartz said. When Southwest High repaved their parking lot, which was surrounded by railing, in the mid-2000s, it became a big skate spot for a few years before the asphalt began to wear down. Many unsanctioned spots skaters frequent will be thwarted by “skate stoppers,” metal bump-outs put on rails and ledges to discourage grinding, he said.

A few years ago, Schwartz built a skating feature the called “cheese box,” a grind box painted like a block of cheese, with the idea of it being a mobile skate park. Skate parks can come in all shapes and sizes and complexities, he said, and sometimes all you need is a smooth, flat surface. By adding the box to such surfaces, pop-up skate parks appear.

In the summer of 2017, the hoops at Painter Park’s basketball court were down and skaters took over the space. Schwartz brought the cheese box and people began to turn out.

“It was a really fun meet-up spot for that summer,” he said.

Next summer when the hoops were back, he brought the box down to the shared street on 29th Street between Bryant and Lyndale avenues, where all forms of transportation have equal access rights, and another skate spot emerged. The skaters did a bit of a Wayne’s World “car … game on” routine with the box, and Schwartz said a lot of locals were happy to see them using the space.

“It was part of the neighborhood,” he said.

This summer, Schwartz is hoping to get permission to set up in the recently repaved city-owned lot at the former SuperValu store at Lake & Nicollet.

One Southwest Master Plan idea that has the skate community licking its lips is the proposed do-it-yourself skate park at the 28th Street Tot Lot park in Whittier.

The concept? Provide materials and resources and let the skate community build what they want within that budget. City of Skate is partnering with the city on the proposed project.

The proposed skate parks in MPRB master plans range from large, regional parks like the one proposed at Bde Mka Ska, which could cost around $1 million, and small skate spots like the concept at Smith Triangle with much smaller price tags. Standard 5,000 to 6,000 square foot skate parks cost about the same as a new playground, or around $500,000, O’Dell said.

“Skate parks, depending on size and design, can be expensive and if you’re going to do it, you want to do it well,” O’Dell said.

Skaters try tricks and hangout at Elliot Park. Photo by Andrew Hazzard
Skaters try tricks and hangout at Elliot Park. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Taking the fight to St. Paul

Skate lobbying efforts have expanded from city lines to the state house over the years. In 2019, City of Skate had a meeting with Gov. Tim Walz and, with the help of state Sen. Scott Dibble (District 61), proposed a measure in the bonding bill to get more funding for public skate parks statewide.

The measure would have allocated $8 million for skate parks in Minnesota. But City of Skate believes that money could result in $20 million in total investment through various matching opportunities. Such dollars could be critical to making plans like the regional park at Bde Maka Ska a reality. The Minnesota Legislature adjourned after a special session last month without passing a bonding bill.

This is the third time the skate park measure in a bonding bill has been introduced.  Dibble said it will have a better chance in 2020, as even years commonly see large bonding bills pass.

Dibble, who introduced the bonding measure in the 2019 session with Republican Sen. Karin Housley, said though the plan has bipartisan support, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make it into a competitive bonding bill. To do that, more lobbying must take place across the state and legislators need to be pressured.

“If people want this, they’re going to have to work for it,” he said.

Never much of a skater himself, Dibble said he’s come to understand the diversity of sports participants and believes opportunities to skate should be provided by public parks in the same way those parks support more traditional sports.

“These are young people who aren’t being served by the system as it is now,” he said.