Sunday, August 24, 2014

NESNA and the Skateboard Coalition

The Skateboard Coalition recently received a request from the parks representative of the Northfield East Side Neighborhood Association (NESNA). NESNA wanted the Coalition to support their request to the City of Northfield for a sound study on the proposed skatepark in Old Memorial Park. A recent Northfield News story quotes my email to the chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) in response to NESNA’s request:

We neither support nor oppose a sound study. We simply decline to partner with NESNA in calling for one. Given NESNA’s history of unrelenting opposition to the skate park, it is far from certain that they would be a good faith partner in this effort. They have shown no willingness to support the skate board park in any way, so it’s understandable that the coalition would be hesitant to support them in calling for a sound study.

In a response to the NESNA parks representative, I suggested that the Coalition might have been more inclined to support NESNA’s request for a sound study if NESNA had been more supportive of the Coalition’s efforts to build a skatepark. I suggested that NESNA might have conducted a neighborhood fund drive for the skatepark, which would have demonstrated the genuineness of his claim that NESNA sought to work together with the Coalition. The NESNA representative responded: “It seems odd that you are asking us to support your efforts while declining to support ours.”

This exchange raises at least two questions: has NESNA been supportive of the Coalition’s efforts, and has the Skateboard Coalition been responsive to the concerns of neighbors?

In three years’ of emails from the parks representative to the NESNA email list, I found many calls to attend meetings of the PRAB or the City Council to express concern over the skatepark, but I found none calling for expressions of support. There were none that presented the case for a skatepark or discussed how the community might benefit from a skatepark. The NESNA website, in fact, cites a 2008 poll conducted by the neighborhood association: “Of all the possible amenities in the park (swing sets, trails, community gardens, etc.), ‘skate park’ received the lowest support: one vote.” A 2012 email to the NESNA list stated: “Recent written input by NESNA members showed overwhelming opposition to siting a skatepark within Old Memorial.”

Although NESNA officially claims “overwhelming opposition” to the skatepark in the neighborhood, a neighborhood fundraiser in April raised nearly $2,000 for the Skateboard Coalition in a single evening, and numerous neighbors of Old Memorial Park have approached me to express their support. It is clear to me that there is a diversity of neighborhood opinion about the skatepark that has not been accurately represented by NESNA.

Has the Skateboard Coalition been responsive to the concerns of neighbors? Let me review the evidence by looking at three of the concerns typically raised by NESNA: site, size, and noise.

Site. NESNA opposed siting the skatepark in Old Memorial Park, and in 2008 presented a formal petition to the PRAB and City Council expressing that opposition. To his credit, the NESNA parks representative recognizes why skateboarders find Old Memorial an attractive location for a skatepark. In an email from September 2012, he writes (about Old Memorial and Riverside Parks): “It’s probably accurate to say that these parks are desirable to skateboarders for the same reasons they are desirable to the neighborhoods: they are nice, green places to be, and they feel more integrated in[to] the City than Babcock Park.”

This is true: skateboarders, like all of us, are social beings. They like to feel that they are a valued part of the community. They want to have positive interactions with neighbors, and to have people watching them, and watching over them, as they skate. They do want the skatepark to be integrated into the City, not marginalized as it would be at Babcock Park.

Throughout this long process, which began in 2006, the youth in the Skateboard Coalition have also been models of polite and responsible civic engagement. This was acknowledged in April 2013, when the Skateboard Coalition was chosen to receive the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative's "Making a Difference" Award, "for exceptional efforts to positively impact the lives of Northfield youth." To me, this speaks highly of the Coalition's value to the community as a whole, and of the positive presence they will be in the Old Memorial Park neighborhood.

In 2012, the City Council approved Riverside Park as the site of the skatepark, with Old Memorial as an alternative if soil conditions in Riverside were unfavorable for construction of a concrete skatepark. When soil borings indicated that the skatepark could not be constructed in the preferred site in Riverside, Old Memorial became the final site of the skatepark.

But where  in Old Memorial? The Skateboard Coalition began looking at a site near the south east corner of the pool building. But NESNA, concerned that this was too close to residences on Prairie Street, “recommended placing the park (if it ended up at Memorial) between the solar panel installations, where there is enough space for an 8000 sq. ft. park.” Although this precise location between the solar panels is not being considered, it is now likely that the site of the skatepark will be immediately to the west of the pool, further from residences. The Coalition supports this site if its somewhat less favorable soil conditions can be remediated without too much additional cost.

The possible location of the skatepark in Old Memorial Park in 2013 planning documents. The yellow rectangle represents a 10,000 sq. ft. skatepark.

The possible location of the skatepark in Old Memorial Park in 2014 planning documents. Note that the yellow arrow on site to the west of the pool indicates the possibility of further adjustment to the site. The skatepark pictured is 4,000 sq. ft.

So, in the matter of siting, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and supports a site within Old Memorial Park that will address those concerns and is similar to NESNA’s own recommendation.

Size. The Skateboard Coalition initially envisioned a 10,000 sq. ft. skatepark. In a September 2012 email, the NESNA parks representative wrote: “We feel that neither Riverside Park nor Memorial Park is large enough to accommodate a 10,000 square foot skate park. However, in a pinch each location might be large enough to accommodate a skatepark of some 4,000 square feet.”

The Skateboard Coalition is now supporting the construction of a 4,000 sq. ft. skatepark in Old Memorial Park. Although the master plan for the skatepark includes a Phase II that would increase the size of the park to 10,000 sq. ft., Phase II would more than double the cost of the park, and isn't attainable in the foreseeable future. Currently, Phase I is the only skatepark under consideration.

So, in the matter of size, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and has scaled back the skatepark to a size that NESNA said would be acceptable.

Noise. Much of the concern about skatepark noise arises from the temporary skatepark in Riverside Park in 2012, which provoked numerous complaints about noise from neighbors living in the Village on the Cannon.

The temporary skatepark consisted of metal equipment on an asphalt surface. On its website, NESNA states: “An asphalt surface with steel modular equipment would be, by all accounts, the loudest possible combination.”  In response to the problem of noise generated by metal equipment, NESNA recommends concrete construction: “The skate park industry and many park boards recommend high-density, smooth, seamless concrete. This is much quieter than pitted surfaces, such as standard concrete, or worse: asphalt.”

The Skateboard Coalition has always acknowledged the noise generated by metal equipment, and has always intended to construct a permanent skatepark with concrete to reduce the sound to acceptable levels. The current design is for a concrete skatepark.

So, in the matter of noise, the Skateboard Coalition has been sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, and is raising funds for a skatepark constructed of sound-reducing concrete, as NESNA recommended.

The Skateboard Coalition has consistently shown consideration for NESNA’s concerns about the skatepark. The Coalition has followed NESNA’s recommendations on the size and siting of the skatepark within Old Memorial Park, and enthusiastically supports their preference for high-quality, sound-reducing concrete construction.

To me, NESNA’s request for a sound study seems like an attempt to move the goal posts after previous concerns have been addressed, and to create yet another obstacle when the skatepark is finally ready to move into the design and construction phase. NESNA might have corrected that impression with a genuine show of support for the skatepark, as in the past the Coalition has shown a genuine willingness to address the concerns of neighbors.

It is, however, a positive development that, in his latest email to the NESNA list, the parks representative mentions that "many more contributions [toward construction of the skatepark] will be needed, and the Coalition is planning to move into higher gear on the fundraising front once planning is done." He adds: "We will let you know about fundraising if and when we are informed about it." I would only note that I did, in fact, send the parks representative detailed information on how to make a donation to the Coalition, but he declined to include it in his email. Instead, he implied that he had not been informed of any fundraising activities.

Finally, he encourages recipients of his email who support the park to let NESNA know their opinions: "If we don’t hear from you, we can’t represent you." 

This, at least, is encouraging. I'm looking forward to seeing if in the future NESNA will be more representative of the diversity of opinion in the neighborhood, voicing not only concern, but also support. 

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .