What's the best way to create the perfect skate park?
Don't make it look like a skate park.
Turns out that concrete skate bowls, pre-fabricated ramps and half-pipes are so yesterday. Many who've been weaned on ESPN's X-Games would rather ride and grind in a "skate plaza" with benches, stairs and rails as props for their acrobatics -- essentially the same type of public places from which skateboarders are often banished for upsetting pedestrians.
"The city of Baltimore probably has a plaza that's really good to skateboard," said Gary Ream, president of USA Skateboard. "But the city ... probably won't allow it."
With skateboards riding a new wave of popularity, recreation planners across the country are trying to accommodate the growing interest in street-style skating by putting in curbs, walls and planters and fewer mini-ramps.
"Skateboarding has become very popular with youths because of the lifestyle," said Ream, who operates Camp Woodward in Pennsylvania, a haven for skateboard enthusiasts. "Because of them living the sport and riding basically on the street, different parks are being built to mimic these obstacles."
Five years ago, there were about 250 skate parks in the U.S., said Ream. Now there are about 2,000, he added, and that number is growing for a street sport that many enthusiasts are trying to return to the sidewalk-style skating from the activity's beginnings.
There are about 20 public and private skate parks in the Baltimore area. Howard County officials say they're thinking about building a couple more public parks, and a group of skateboard enthusiasts are lobbying Baltimore for another. In Baltimore County, which already has four public parks and at least one private indoor one, officials are planning a new one as part of a community park in the Perry Hall area.
When penciling in plans for Asbury Park, the local recreation council decided it would be "gnarly" to put in some conventional ramps and jumps so skateboarders could practice their airborne stunts.
To which local skateboarders replied, in so many words: no thanks.
"Instead of us breaking the law all the time, why don't you put in what we want?" said John Mosmiller, a 32-year-old skate shop worker who spoke on behalf of skateboarders at a White Marsh Recreation Council meeting this summer.
What skateboarders would love, it seems, is a skate plaza like Rob Dyrdek/DC Shoes Skate Plaza in Kettering, Ohio. Designed by professional skateboarder and Kettering native Rob Dyrdek, the plaza sprawls across 44,000 square feet and looks more like the courtyard of a government building than a classic skateboard park. It has concrete slopes, benches and stairs with metal handrails connecting the concrete terraces. When the $650,000 project was finished, it looked nothing like a skate park -- and that was the point.
Bill Tschirhart, a manager for the parks, recreation and cultural arts department in Kettering, said families often plan their vacations to include a stop at the plaza, which opened in 2005.
"I drove through there late last night, and there were license plates from four different states," Tschirhart said.
Stephanie Murdock, president of the Skatepark of Baltimore, a nonprofit group founded last year, also has a vision for a destination skate park -- at least 35,000 square feet of street obstacles and ramps and bowls -- this one in the city.
"It would draw tourists and skaters from all over," she said before a small planning meeting yesterday at State of Confusion Skatepark in Rosedale, a private indoor facility. "We want something for all levels."
The group thought it had the perfect spot, a 7-acre parcel under Interstate 95 near Swann Park, but contamination issues have prompted the advocates to consider other locations while they look for grants to help cover the expected $1 million cost.
Other cities, most notably, Shreveport, La., have used Kettering as an example when building their plazas, said a spokeswoman from the Rob Dyrdek/DC Shoes Skate Plaza Foundation.
"Cities are noticing that this is something a ton of kids are doing," said Cristina Kown, the foundation spokeswoman. The foundation provides information to local groups on building skate plazas, and Kown said it is getting a lot of calls from parents interested in having a safe place for their kids to skate.
Nick Applegate, a 19-year-old skateboarder from Kingsville, says he would love to go to Kettering.
"It seems," he said, "like the perfect place to skate."
Reflecting the current rage for street-style skating, the hot spot for Applegate and other area skateboard enthusiasts now is a burned-out lumberyard on Belair Road dubbed "The Ridge."
The 2-acre lot next to the Schaefer & Strohminger car dealership and near the BJ's Wholesale Club is the former site of Ridge Lumber Co. That business burned down in 2002, and after the rubble was cleared, skateboarders started taking advantage of the smooth concrete foundations. The skateboarders have added ramps and ledges to the site, making it much more like the skate plaza in Ohio than anything in Baltimore County.
"Everything here we built," said Chris Mentlik, a 21-year-old Bel Air resident. "It's pretty much made to skate."
It's not uncommon for deserted buildings to be turned into impromptu skate parks. Mosmiller, the skate shop employee, said he has skated at similar places in Atlanta and California, but describes them as "places you would go to dump an old mattress."
The Ridge is no exception. Even after a recent cleanup, soda bottles and food wrappers litter the ground, creating more obstacles for skaters.
None of this seems to stop skateboarders -- nor what the skaters only describe as occasional visits from police. Though the skaters are trespassing on private property, Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey says officers don't break up the activity because they generally only respond to complaints -- and there haven't been any lately.
The county's official skate parks aren't doing much business these days. According to park attendance records, on a recent Saturday in July, the park in Lansdowne had fewer than 30 skaters. Skaters at The Ridge are used to seeing crowds larger than that on most weekdays.
County recreation officials were hoping a new course would lure skateboarders away from places like The Ridge. But the playground-type designs proposed for Asbury Park, and the county's policy of requiring courses to be staffed by monitors who enforce safety and behavior rules, are exactly what skateboarders say they want to avoid.
"The council was a little flabbergasted," said Mosmiller. "They didn't understand -- we are building a skate park, why aren't they happy?"
The county requires users of its parks to register and wear knee and elbow pads and helmets when riding in the parks -- a downer for many free-spirited skateboarders. The monitors, who work only in the daytime, have the power to throw skaters out for not wearing safety gear or for misbehavior -- including cursing. All the parks close at dusk.
"If they built a skate park, no one would skate it," said Brandon Wingate, 16, who visits The Ridge almost every day. "Everyone would just come here."
Now enlightened about the new fashions in skate parks, community leaders say they're looking into making Asbury more urban and street-friendly.
"If we are going to build it, then we might as well build it the way the people who are going to use it want," said White Marsh Recreation Council President Jennifer Mayfield.
The Perry Hall skate plaza would be built on land near Honeygo Boulevard and Joppa Road, in the heart of one of the county's designated growth areas. It would likely join a tot lot, a small concert pavilion and walking trails on an 11-acre plot north of Honeygo Boulevard.
That section had been part of Gough Park, which is to include athletic fields. It was recently given its own name, Asbury Park.
The development of the park is a $4 million project. The county received a $125,000 state grant for the skate course, said John Markley, deputy county parks director.
Of course, even if Baltimore County builds another skate plaza like the jewel in Ohio, there's still the matter of the hours and rules -- which may keep skateboarders looking elsewhere for those off-limits thrills.
"The Ridge is never closed -- you can come whenever you want," notes Applegate. "I like this place. It's secluded, no one really bothers you."