State transportation officials are finally taking care of a dangerous scourge underneath a freeway.
Discarded syringes? No. Unsanitary campsites? Nope. Criminal operations? Nah. The Washington State Department of Transportation is setting its sites on skaters in Renton.
“It’s been a little over a year we’ve been building a safe, dry place to skate and escape from the rain for every skateboard enthusiast in the greater Western Washington area,” Jack Skeel told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “We started small with a couple bags of concrete and few small obstacles that cost a couple hundred dollars. Then it escalated into something a lot bigger than we ever imagined.”
“With the support of the community and the skateboarders around there pitching in their funds, personal money from their pockets, and the nonchalant okays we got from the Renton parks department and Renton police officers … it gave us some confidence and we started getting after it and building what we consider a full-sized skate park,” he said.
Skeel said that $6,000-8,000 has been poured into the unofficial park under I-405 in Renton. About 10-20 people are at the park on an average weekend. He’s met skaters from all over the state, even from Vancouver B.C.
But three weeks ago, WSDOT officials started calling local skate shops to find who was behind the park. Skeel, along with the park’s other founder, Brian Foss, soon got call. WSDOT wants to shut the park down because — as an unofficial, unsanctioned park — it is a liability. Skeel understands this perspective. In fact, the skaters have taken extra measures to ensure that no graffiti or litter is left around the park to draw attention or make them look bad.
But WSDOT’s action begs another question: Why the skate park? After all, there are hundreds of unsanctioned camps under freeways where plenty of crime happens.
“I’m sure having people shoot up heroin underneath a freeway overpass has got to be a pretty big liability,” Skeel said.
“I could understand where they would come from, saying we started this project without their permission, on their property,” he said. “But it’s a double standard with those people camping out in tents for months at a time; who didn’t have permission to go down there and set up a plywood fortress that took a week to create.”
Skeel points out that this is not the first time WSDOT has had to deal with a DIY project under a freeway. In Seattle, mountain bikers set up trails underneath a portion of I-5 near Eastlake, neighboring the KIRO Radio offices. WSDOT eventually allowed the mountain bike park to stay and become official. Skeel would like the same opportunity for the Renton skate park and is trying to work with WSDOT to that end.
Skeel said there’s another benefit from taking an unused patch of concrete and converting it into active use.
“When we started this project down there, there were plenty of transients and plenty of people wandering through that area all day long,” Skeel said. “We used to worry about our cars, we’d be watching out … in the last year, honestly, I don’t see them anymore. Other skateboarders don’t see them anymore. They’ve completely disappeared from that location because there are people there all the time.”
WSDOT and the skate park
According to WSDOT Maintenance and Operations Manager Chris Johnson, the department was contacted by the city and told about the skate park. He sent out some workers to check on the situation.
“They contacted the skate boarders and said, ‘You really can’t be here because it’s not your property,” Johnson said. “There is a process by which you can apply for permits and make sure you got all the proper liability insurance, etc. and they laid out the parameters by which they could be there. That’s where we put the ball in their court.”
Johnson said that the skateboarders have met with Renton city officials for help making their park valid. He said they will need permits and ways to ensure sanitation and that there will be no graffiti.
“The biggest hurdle for them is to have some kind of liability insurance that makes sure that if somebody does get hurt, they are not going to come after the state for those injuries,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that WSDOT does work with cities on the homeless issue, and that both unauthorized parks and tents pose liabilities for the state. But he says the homeless camping issue is very different.
“That problem has not gone away yet and there is no easy answer for that situation,” he said.
“The homeless issue, whether they are homeless because of an economic situation, or using their drugs … those are a lot of other circumstances that have their own issues to deal with,” Johnson said. “With the skateboarders, we have a responsibility to the taxpayers of the state to make sure we defend our right-of-way as best we can. And knowing there is a potential liability out there with skateboarders using our property for an unpermitted activity, we’ve got to make sure they get the right permits that need to be in place or we need to have them leave.”