Vancouver, British Columbia

A street skater’s paradise

New Line Skatepark’s Skate Plaza, Vancouver, British Columbia:

Skateboarders are celebrated in Vancouver, BC. Rather than being pushed into the shadows, the City of Vancouver has produced 5 different skateboarding facilities. While an equitable mix of skate terrain has been established, we are focused on the skate plaza for this exercise.

The Vancouver skate plaza is a win-win from many viewpoints. This is a place which is aesthetically pleasing to skaters and non-skaters alike. Since it is more of a public space than skatepark, the use of materials other than traditional ‘grey concrete’ gives a feel of the type of terrain that the modern street skater craves.

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The site is excellent: close to downtown (and public transportation), in a previously under-utilized space, making use of existing lighting and shelter from the elements, and partially re-using the existing surface. The main ingredient in this recipe for success is the focus on the end users – the skaters. Skaters were involved in all aspects of this project from the design to the actual building of the structures that make up this revolutionary skate plaza. Without the skaters input, the end result would have suffered.

The Downtown Skateboard Plaza is a joint project of the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board. It was constructed by New Line Skateparks at a cost of $250,000 (CAD), (approx. $223,00 US) with design input from the Skate Park Coalition, a local skateboarder advocacy group.

Q&A with Mark van der Zalm:

Founding principle of van der Zalm + associates, inc.

SPS:
Are the local skaters happy with the parks? How has the skate plaza impacted the usage of the other skate areas?

van der Zalm:
Local skaters seem very pleased with the park. It is their ‘home park’ and is the first in the downtown. We built a small ‘spot’ in Strathcona Park two years ago which is about 5 minutes away from the plaza. It is a good place to warm up and is home to some of Vancouver’s better-known skaters (Rick McCrank).
How successful has the siting been with the plaza? How has the plaza impacted the dynamic of the neighborhood?
The plaza location has been successful. There was definitely concern from area residents. There are new concrete residential high-rises within a block of the park. We had to work with the strata council and some individual owners to ensure that their concerns were listened to. We did our best to route traffic too the park from areas – other than, the streets beside these towers. Some of this was accomplished by ‘uncapping’ skate spots (i.e., removing skate stoppers) on the downtown side of the plaza. This forces skaters to arrive at the site from the opposite direction. Skaters from the burbs arrive by skytrain (light rail). They predominantly go to the ‘Stadium’ station which is one stop past the residential towers, so that they can hit the uncapped spot.

The site is also an ‘underutilized’ brownfield which was used for some day parking, and for drug dealing. Bringing the skate plaza to this location has removed the ‘sketchy element’ and replaced it with positive activity. Our firm won a Canadian Society of landscape Architecture ‘Regional Honour’ award for best use of an underutilized site.

van_plaza_3s.jpgThis project was designed as a public space first, and then tailored to meet the needs of the skaters. How crucial was this to making a successful facility?

In order to make this park function as a ‘plaza’ we needed to ignore skateboarding at first. We approached the project as an urban design problem. Once we had a design solution that addressed traffic, adjacent uses, etc. we worked with New Line to make the plaza MORE skateable. The result was a facility that is less ‘park’ and more ‘urban space’.

We are seeing that skaters and non-skaters alike really like the feel of the plaza – how it doesn’t feel like a skatepark. How did you go about achieving this?

Same as mentioned earlier … we also utilized different materials for some ledges: two types of granite, brick masonry, exposed aggregate.

One of the highlights of the plaza is the use of non-traditional materials, such as brick and granite. What were the some of the factors which influenced the use of these materials?

The use of materials was influenced by well-known Vancouver skate spots. The brick bank is mimicked after the Georgia St. Fountain bank, the granite ledges mimic urban plaza spaces throughout the city, the steel rails are dimensionally correct to the (now capped) CIBC (bank plaza) rails. The pier 7 manual pads are granite capped, but based upon the SF – spot. Many visitors don’t pick up on the subtle relationship to local spots – but many of the local skaters do.

The cost per square foot was extremely affordable. Can you touch on why that is?

The costs were kept exceptionally low because of technical detailing that was lightweight. Some of the key elements that saved us money:

1.) No excavation beyond 1m (3’), the site is considered contaminated beyond this level.
2.) Hollow boxes instead of solid concrete
3.) We used an acrylic coating on existing asphalt – from the parking lot. It looks like concrete but saved us approx. $60k. The acrylic coating is not performing too well due to extreme usage. We have submitted a proposal to put new concrete throughout the park next year. Overall our costs were approx. $10.50 per square foot. This takes into account that we utilized a lot of existing features: drainage structures from the parking lot, existing lighting, electrical, and some existing asphalt. I don’t think we could replicate this costing on another site – ever!

The plaza is lighted for night use. How has that affected the facility?

Night lighting is excellent for this area. It is not sport lighting level, but it definitely extends the hours of use and keeps the place safe.

Have the skaters developed a ‘sense of ownership’?

Ownership amongst locals should be answered by the Vancouver skateboard coalition (VSPC).

(Editor’s Note: Ownership and stewardship programs at the Vancouver Plaza have been active and enjoyed exceptional participation. See the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition for more details.)

What would you do differently next time? What advice would you give other communities?

Next time I would probably not consider utilizing the existing asphalt – I would push for concrete in all areas. This is a difficult decision as it could delay the construction of the park due to budget concerns. All in all – the process was excellent and I am happy with the result. Advice to other communities – look to local, organized skateboard groups for support, design input, and guidance throughout. This is huge in building ownership of the project. I would suggest that they think in a creative vein – consider different sites, consider different approaches and really listen to what the user group wants. Go through a public process with the users – this is critical. In many cases this will help cities save money. We are finding that user groups are gravitating to more simple designs with better materials. Talk to the locals, talk to residents, have group meetings to ensure that everyone’s concerns are heard. We cannot satisfy everyone, but it is important to go through a public and transparent process.

Q&A with Kevin Kelly:

President of the Vancouver Skate Park Coalition (VSPC):

SPS:
Are the local skaters happy with the parks? How have the newer parks impacted the usage of the earlier parks?

Kelly:
There are about 8 or so communities [surrounding Vancouver, B.C.] and they all have multiple parks. Because of their easy accessibility, most people frequent more than one park. It’s usually just the kids and younger teenagers that really localize a park and stay close, while all others roam freely park to park.

But to answer the second point. Yes, new parks will always affect the older ones because the new parks have the new lines and obstacles. The local kids remain the same but the older crowds tend to migrate to the next new spot or park.

I have tried numerous times to convince local governments that parks need to be “updated” every few years and that it can help to re-energize the park. As of yet I have not seen an example of this, but I do believe that it’s not far off. Adding manual pads, ledges and flat rails is pretty simple stuff and add a lot to an outdated park.

van_plaza_12s.jpgHas the number of skateboarders in Vancouver been affected by having a skateparks? Is there a further impact with each additional park?

Having parks around will always make people want to skateboard, just like a pool makes you want to swim. Vancouver is kind of unique though, because of its west coast vibe there have always been lots of people into skateboarding naturally. It would never die here. People here street skate a lot too, and just use them as transportation. On any given day you see up to 20 random skaters rolling around the streets. People that you never see in parks.

What have been the advantages to building multiple parks? To offer a variety of terrain, to distribute them through the city, or both?

Both of course. Spread them out to make them accessible to everyone, and have different terrains for everyone. Cramming everyone in a small space with limited options has never made sense to me and luckily hasn’t been the way things are done here.

How successful has the siting been with the plaza? How has the proximity to downtown affected the park?

It’s been nothing but a success. Sure there’s the odd this or that, but nothing like what used to occupy that spot. It was full of bums, junkies and people camped out away from rain. Now it’s alive. It’s totally visible from the skytrain (subway) as well. So the general public sees it in action constantly.

Are there plans for more skateparks and/or expanding the current ones? If so, what would you like to see in the next park(s)?

We’ve put requests in with the city for the next capital plan budget for 2006-2008. Last time they gave us $200k and we managed to get a few other spots from other types of funding and luck. I think the city sees the benefit in building small affordable mini-parks and spots all over the city instead of big ones. They are easier to push through all the red tape. Less intrusive to the neighborhoods and green space. We won’t know for a little while still, but early rumors have us getting almost twice that amount this time around. I see at least 5 more skate options within Vancouver over the next 2 years. That would bring the number to 12 parks or spots just in Vancouver.

Regarding BMX usage in the skateparks: have there been issues?

We at the coalition have requested and suggested that it not be allowed at – Hastings, The Plaza and Strathcona and have given ample evidence of damage and danger to back up these requests. Graciously the City has complied. This is based mainly on the City’s recognition of all the effort put forth by the skate community towards getting them built. Lately the BMX community has gotten more organized and lobbied for their own parks or inclusion in ours. Looks like the City may try to accommodate them more in the future, we’ll see.

Are your parks lighted for night use?

There are a number of parks in the surrounding areas with lights. They are a costly addition, so many parks simply can’t afford them but would like them. They are usually considered good for safety and security. Most parents and Police would agree. The only park in Vancouver with lights is The Plaza. The lights were already there for security when it was a parking lot. Luckily we inherited them.

What problems have come up since completion of these parks?

People here are getting too good. Makes us old dudes feel bad.

Have the skaters developed a ‘sense of ownership’? Does that help mitigate potential issues?

Skaters have demonstrated that they are good citizens and that they have pride in their areas. Skaters police spots around town better than the cops sometimes.

Is there a sense that you have demonstrated to the youth of Vancouver that the city is interested in their wants and needs? That they are ‘in touch’ with them?

We’ve been trying more and more to give that kind of spin. It’s good for both sides to see things this way. If the youth believe that the City cares about them, then the City has a duty not to let them down.

What would you do different next time? What advice would you give other communities?

Wouldn’t change a thing, this is the best place to be a skater in the world. My advice would be to listen to the kids, look past the kooky image, bad language and really listen to them. Give them what they want. There’s never a shortage of baseball or football fields right? These are good kids too; they just don’t like the team thing.

How has the plaza affected street skating?

All the capping and skate-proofing affected street skating badly before the Plaza was built.

But now it’s kind of in a revival downtown. The good kids skate street because they know the pro world revolves around it. They train at the Plaza.

Q&A with Jay Lamarche:

VSPC Vice-President

SPS:
Are the local skaters happy with the parks?

Lamarche:
Yes, very.

How has the newer parks impacted the usage of the earlier parks?

Not that much, it is used mainly by street skaters who don’t skate parks all the time.

Has the number of skateboarders in Vancouver been affected by having skateparks?

There will always be more kids skating the new parks due to the proximity of these facilities to their homes but I wouldn’t say there has been an influx of skaters but it has given places for skaters to go.

Is there a further impact with each additional park?

More public awareness and acceptance of the skateboard lifestyle.

van_plaza_16s.jpgWhat have been the advantages to building multiple parks? To offer a variety of terrain, to distribute them through the city, or both?

Facilitates the needs of skaters all over the lower mainland. Different styles of parks to skate at, so both.

How has the proximity to downtown affected the park?

Yes it incorporates more skaters from the downtown core where there has been a problem with skaters and building owners/police/guards.

Are there plans for more skateparks and/or expanding the current ones?

There are always more plans for new parks. This current plaza cannot be expanded upon due to its limited space.

What would you like to see in future parks?

More original designs and different obstacles. Also have a higher ratio of street style materials built into the plaza i.e.; more granite, chrome rails, polished concrete with designs or lines in them.

Regarding BMX usage in the skateparks: have there been issues?

Not really. There is an understanding between both user groups. Bikes can sometimes be found there but they know not to grind the granite ledges there.

Are your parks lighted for night use?

Only by street, and overpass lights. Enough light to skate with. Offers round the clock access to this facility.

What problems have come up since completion of these parks?

The only problem with the plaza so far is maintenance issues. Missing bricks on the hip/bank, chipping granite, defects in the special asphalt coating the contractors used. They have already been fixed.

Have the skaters developed a ‘sense of ownership’?

Yes.

Does that help mitigate potential issues?

I would say so yes.

Is there a sense that you have demonstrated to the youth of Vancouver that the city is interested in their wants and needs? That they are ‘in touch’ with them?

Somewhat yes, their recreational needs perhaps. Hmm… in touch via skateboarder liaisons maybe.

What would you do different next time?

Fight harder for the city to agree to an adequate space to construct the facility… 10+ years is far too long… Definitely would have more on hands supervision from actual skateboarders during the design process and the construction process.

What advice would you give other communities?

Learn the difference between a novice skateboarder and a professional or experienced skater. The older kids have a better understanding of what your community will need in order satisfy their needs. Small kids can be talked into building whatever the park designer prefers, this can be bad for your community if it does not serve to meet the needs of the majority of skaters in your area i.e.; street skaters vs. transition skaters.

How has the plaza affected street skating?

Not too much difference in the downtown core seeing as most of our spots have already been rendered un-skateable by business owners. There are lots of people skating down sidewalks still and in the roads.

We have some theories as to how successful different parks turn out to be as we are starting to put patterns together. If you can share your experiences with us, perhaps we can come up with better solutions for your community and others as well.

The plaza was successful for several reasons. The location is close enough to downtown to attract that demographic of street skaters. The design was different than any other park in the city. The materials used copied several real street elements.

Q&A with Kyle Dion:

President, Director of Skatepark Development at New Line Skateparks :

Dion:
To start things off a little intro to the Vancouver Skate ‘Plaza’ may be in order. I know that calling it a ‘plaza’ is a fun thing to do and is great from a marketing perspective but the truth of the matter is that it is just a skatepark. It definitely caters more to the skateboarders that prefer to ride urban style terrain but still misses the target of a plaza by the simple fact that it is used mostly by just skateboarders.

van_plaza_18s.jpgA true plaza space would be a space that is welcoming to and used by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of things. The true essence of Love Park, Pier 7, Embarcadero, Barcelona Bus Station and the hundreds of other urban spaces throughout the world that street skateboarders are drawn too seem to have a life of their own that creates this unique energy that adds to the skateboarding experience. I believe that is why some of the best places in the world to street skate exist because they where designed by people who were focused on making great spaces for people in general not just for skateboarding.

What we have learned from these urban planners and designers is the term: “SENSE OF PLACE”. When we use this as a guiding principle for designing skateparks (or more appropriately, spaces for skateboarders) a truly unique feeling facility seems to emerge. Whether it is a urban terrain park downtown or an old school snake run in a green park down by the river I believe creating a unique sense of place is what separates a good skate park from a truly great skatepark.

SPS:
Are the local skaters happy with the parks? How has the skate plaza impacted the usage of the other skate areas?

It is hard to describe the impact the ‘Skate Plaza’ has had on the Vancouver Skateboard Community. Street skating in the downtown area was slowly becoming extinct due to skate proofing, security, etc and being pushed into the skateparks out in the suburbs. What was once an international Mecca for urban street skating is now a handful of spots that are likely an immediate bust.

The Vancouver Skate Plaza seems to have breathed life back into the downtown skateboarding scene. It gives skaters a legit place to go to meet up, hang out and most importantly skate fun stuff without leaving the city. Although skateboarders are still (and will always be) skating downtown spots (skaters need to work!!!) it seems to have reduced the conflict dramatically. Now skaters have a place to go while the downtown streets are full of people and practice tricks that they will later take on their night missions once the streets are theirs!!! Bottom line: It has reduced conflicts, not necessarily stopped true street skating.

How successful has the siting been with the plaza?

The siting is everything. Close proximity to the downtown core. Between two sky train stations, close to buses, fairly central, close to food, washrooms, etc, etc. This place is very accessible for lots of Vancouver skateboarders.

On the flip side area residents seem to have problems (conflicts with pedestrians, noise, etc) with so many skaters coming and going from the park. At the park is no problem, they love to come and watch. Skateable pathways to and from the park are key considerations when citing an urban skatepark.

How has the plaza impacted the dynamic of the neighborhood?

What was once a cesspool of crime, sex and drugs is now a space full of positive energy at all hours of the day. Right now this neighborhood is going though revitalization with lots of high-end residential development. It is great that skateboarding is here first to help make people feel safer spending time in this area.

This project was designed as a public space first, and then tailored to meet the needs of the skaters. How crucial was this to making a successful facility?

Although we used the same principles of designing an urban space (e.g., “sense of place”) we seem to have missed the mark a little on making it a ‘public space.’ This is why it is not quite a plaza. I guess a better term to use would be urban space designed for skateboarding.

Going though this process was a great experience. The Landscape Architects went to town first developing general themes and focusing on how the place looks, feels and fits into the neighborhood. The skaters then came in and focused on making it functional for skateboarders. This process contributed to the success of this facility by making it look and feel more authentic.

One of the highlights of the plaza is the use of non-traditional materials, such as brick and granite. What were the some of the factors that influenced the use of these materials?

The hardcore downtown street skaters had lots of input throughout the design process. While the LA’s where going through the urban design exercise we were setting priorities with the downtown skaters. The message was loud and clear: quality over quantity. Most street skaters would rather have 5 perfect simple obstacles than 20 crazy skatepark obstacles. Also the look and feel was very important. We hit the streets to find materials, textures, sounds and dimensions that street skaters enjoyed…the banked hip had go: duka, duka duka, CRACK…silence…duka, duka duka in order to make the cut.

The cost per square foot was extremely affordable. Can you touch on why that is?

This was probably one of the greatest challenges of this whole project. All that for $250,000!? What??? The secret was trying to use as much of the existing infrastructure as possible. As it was already a parking lot we designed it to work with the existing drainage system and do little excavation. We saved as much of the existing asphalt surface as we could and tried to get away with painting it with a sport court paint. This failed miserably! The paint is peeling off and the asphalt is turning to dust in the heavy impact areas. The cost to replace all the asphalt areas with concrete is only $50,000 so hopefully the city will do that next year. Still, $300,000 for 26,000 square feet! I guess the true secret is simplicity. There really isn’t much to it. A few ledges, some stairs, a little granite. That’s it.

The plaza is lighted for night use. How has that affected the facility?

The lighting was already there for nighttime parking. It has really helped spread the use of the park over longer hours. Also it seems most street skaters like to ride late at night so it’s great. Lit 24/7!!!

Have the skaters developed a ‘sense of ownership’?

It started off a little slow but now things are great. There was always a sense of ownership surrounding the place but it took a while for the pride to set in. the place was plagued with bad graffiti and tons of litter for the first few months and all the skaters cared about was skating. Then the Vancouver Skatepark Coalition took a leadership role in cleaning it up and the place seems to be doing is great!

What would you do different next time? What advice would you give other communities?

NO ASPHALT!!! Way bigger. Add a small bowl unit or half pipe and probably use 4-foot chunks of granite instead of 2 foot. Also stay away from clay bricks. Granite squares or custom paving stones will work better. We’ll keep you posted on what works best.

Q&A with Curtis Link:

City of Vancouver, BC

SPS:
Are the local skaters happy with the parks? How has the skate plaza impacted the usage of the other skate areas?

Link:
All the parks have been very successful and it can be assumed that the skaters are very happy. The skate plaza is a street style facility and attracts those who would usually skate in downtown building plazas. I don’t think it has impacted on the use of the bowl parks.

How successful has the siting been with the plaza?

The site was a parking lot under a viaduct (elevated roadway) on the edge of the downtown with good access via public transportation and has proved successful. It is partially covered by the viaduct which provides some protection from both sun and rain.

How has the plaza impacted the dynamic of the neighborhood?

The neighborhood is in transition from commercial/industrial to high density residential. The plaza is somewhat isolated by the road system surrounding it. Residents and business groups were consulted during the design process.

van_plaza_20s.jpgThis project was designed as a public space first, and then tailored to meet the needs of the skaters. How crucial was this to making a successful facility?

The plaza was designed specifically as a skate plaza incorporating elements skaters prefer in public spaces/plazas. This is why it is successful.

We are seeing that skaters and non-skaters alike really like the feel of the plaza – how it doesn’t feel like a skatepark. How did you go about achieving this?

The plaza was designed to ‘replicate’ a building plaza with stairs, rails, ramps, benches, pediments, loading dock and surfaces skaters prefer.

One of the highlights of the plaza is the use of non-traditional materials, such as brick and granite. What were the some of the factors which influenced the use of these materials?

The use of granite and brick may be non-traditional in a skate bowl but these are materials commonly found in public/private downtown plazas.

The cost per square foot was extremely affordable. Can you touch on why that is?

We had a set budget and the designers made it work.

The plaza is lighted for night use. How has that affected the facility?

The lighting existed for the parking lot and for the roadway above the plaza. It can be assumed that the lighting would allow night use of the facility.

Have the skaters developed a ‘sense of ownership’?

I believe so, their presence tends to help reduce anti-social behavior that was prevalent in the area.

What would you do different next time? What advice would you give other communities?

The existing asphalt parking lot surface was coated with a sports court coating system which is taking a beating and chipping off. If water gets under it it also cause lifting. The preference would be to have a concrete surface.

Project cost breakdown:
(all dollars Canadian, 2005)

Mobilization and Demolition: $ 9123.00
Excavation and earthworks: $53,304.00
Drainage: $10,625.00
Metalwork/fencing $95,719.00
Asphalt: $27,750.00
Landscaping: $28,837.00
Cash: allowance $153.00
Granite: $5,525.00
Total: $245,381.00 (7% tax)

Photos: Brock McNally
Words: Chad Balcom