Skateboarders Lose to The Man 

Caltrans has already leveled one popular skate park in West Oakland, and is about to demolish a second.

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To the group of skateboarders who constructed and frequented The Spot, a surreptitiously-built skate park between Wood Street and Mandela Parkway in West Oakland, it was a slab of concrete heaven, a recreational respite tucked away underneath the I-580 freeway. To Caltrans, the agency that oversees the piece of land on which the park was built, the structure was an illegal encroachment on state-owned property and a potential liability. And to the City of Emeryville, which made a vain effort to preserve the space by leasing it from the transit agency for use as a legitimate park — even though the park was in West Oakland — it was a frustrating example of how financial constraints have rendered such city-sponsored projects a pipe dream.

Regardless of what the skate park symbolized to those who either supported or contested its existence, today it is little more than flattened ground. Alex Fatemi, a 23-year-old Oakland skateboarder who helped start the park in September 2009, said he arrived there late last month to find it fenced off and dotted with notices of encroachment. He made a call to Caltrans and was informed that the park was slated for removal. Over the next few days, Fatemi and other park proponents scrambled to halt the demolition, trying to drum up last-minute support through phone calls, social media outlets, and an online petition that gathered more than 2,000 signatures.

But on Thursday, August 25, a crew of Caltrans workers carried out the agency's plans to tear down The Spot. Fatemi and his friend Ian Schaefer, who also helped construct the park, showed up at 8 a.m. to oppose the demolition. The duo had hopped the fence that surrounded the area, and Fatemi skated up and around the concrete transitions and other obstacles inside the park while Schaefer stood nearby with a video camera, documenting The Spot's final moments. It wasn't long before a California Highway Patrol officer arrived and asked the two to leave, prompting them to stand watch from behind the fence. "These dudes are all just doing their jobs right now, but it's fucked," Schaefer said, his eyes fixed on a bulldozer inching its way over a concrete mound. "We built this park and put everything into it, and for this to happen. ... This is a bad dream."

The Spot was one of two illegally constructed and tenuously existing skate parks in West Oakland that Caltrans recently made plans to remove. The agency said it will soon hire contractors to tear down Bordertown — a space built in 2004 on a stretch of Caltrans-controlled land at 34th and Louise streets, which garnered media coverage, political support, and even a conditional lease with the City of Oakland when it was initially threatened with removal in 2005. And while both parks have attracted varying degrees of support from Emeryville and Oakland officials, each city's involvement was ultimately ineffective in staving off the parks' destruction — that is, unless some last-ditch effort is made to save Bordertown.

But the odds are looking very slim. Caltrans hasn't announced an official demolition date, but by the time of this article's publication, the Bordertown could very well be gone. In July, Caltrans sent letters to Oakland and Emeryville officials announcing its plans to remove both skate parks, citing structural concerns related to their construction underneath the MacArthur Maze (and in the case of Bordertown, up onto the freeway structure itself) as well as an "increase in assaults and other criminal actions" at both sites. It followed up with a courtesy notice the day before tearing down The Spot, but the letters failed to prompt any palpable form of protest from officials in either city. "We did the best we could to make some kind of arrangement," said Caltrans public information officer Robert Haus. "But, unfortunately, nothing could be worked out."

Last year there was a brief glimmer of hope for The Spot. Emeryville Mayor Nora Davis said it was during a police ride-along that she first happened upon a group of skateboarders gliding around the park. Seeing the cop car, the skateboarders initially started fleeing, but Davis said she managed to call them back, which is when she learned of the efforts that had gone into the amateur-built structure. "They literally had put their heart and soul into it, and it seemed like such a good use of the space under the MacArthur Maze," she said. "I was so impressed with the work that they had already done. They were just wonderful young people."

By this time Caltrans had already served the skateboarders an eviction notice, but they were invited to a city council meeting to discuss last-minute possibilities for saving the park. Davis explained that even though the park was technically in Oakland, it was close enough to the Emeryville border to be an asset to residents of both cities. "The fact is, the problems of youth recreation go across city lines," she said. Davis said the city council unanimously supported the park, and the city began negotiations with Caltrans last October for a potential lease of the 93,000 square-foot area; half of which had already been constructed upon.

But Caltrans' initial quote effectively ended negotiations between the agency and the city. The park, situated near a high retail area, would have cost $5,000 a month and required a $25 million liability insurance policy, on top of the costly modifications needed to legitimize the space. Davis said that money was the ultimate barrier to signing a lease.

Fatemi said he and other skateboarders would have been willing to shoulder some of the financial burden and maintenance work needed to operate the park, but alleged that Caltrans' quote to the City of Emeryville was set at a "just say no" value presumably stemming from its disinterest in hosting a skate park. "Basically they didn't even give us a chance, they just wiped out the place," he said. "If you go there now it doesn't even look like it ever existed."

Haus said that Caltrans' quote was based not on an anti-skateboarding agenda but determined by fair market value, and that the property's proximity to Target and other retail stores makes it an appealing area for advertisers and other businesses. Currently, a portion of the site adjacent to the now-defunct structure is being used to store a pile of dirt, but additional use of the remaining area is still undetermined.

It's unclear whether or not a lease between the City of Emeryville and Caltrans would have saved The Spot in the long run, regardless of any costs or labor that may have been offset by those who built it. If Bordertown's history offers any precedent, those who built the improvised skate park would eventually have faced a slew of fees and other requirements to operate on a legitimate level, including securing professionally designed plans for an engineer-certified structure. Such was a requirement of the conditional lease held from 2005 to 2008 between the City of Oakland, Caltrans, and Bordertown's founders via a nonprofit created in the name of the park.

Tony Miorana, one of the park's creators, said calls to local politicians who once publically backed the park are now ignored. The City of Oakland also declined to negotiate a lasting lease when the conditional agreement expired, leaving the skate park vulnerable to demolition. Mayor Jean Quan's spokeswoman Sue Piper said in an e-mail that as she understands it, "The city's main concern was the park organizers' inability to meet the conditions of the proposed sublease," including submitting engineering plans that satisfied current building codes and engineering standards. "Caltrans would have required the city to be responsible for the construction, operations, and maintenance of the site," she wrote.

With help from fundraisers and donations, the Bordertown group paid thousands of dollars in engineering fees, building permits, and insurance installments over the years — and because the group functioned as a nonprofit, the requisite $25 million liability insurance policy cost a manageable $1,200 a year. Also, because the park was built in a relatively remote area, the monthly rent was significantly lower than Caltrans' asking price for The Spot. Miorana said that when the conditional lease was initially outlined, organizers thought they'd be able to salvage the park, but despite their endeavors to comply with Caltrans' requirements, their efforts never seemed to be enough and the park was never legally opened to the public, although skateboarders used it often. "It's like every time we bring them something they want us to do something else," he said of Caltrans.

But Miorana, who, along with fellow Bordertown organizer Josh Matlock has worked over the past few years building professional parks from Bakersfield to Israel, said he hasn't given up on his plans for establishing a lasting park, even if it means finding a new spot. "We're just going to keep fighting and building," he promised. "We're willing to build more spots if anyone's interested."

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