Berkeley Skate Park Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
By Judith Scher 2008-04-08
Hazard signs warned passerby against
contaminated water stored on the construction site.
A five-year-old city skateboard park that was to cost $200,000 and ended up costing four times that amount today is splitting at the seams. Its cracks and crevices are filled in weekly by attentive park staff and a $40,000 facelift is planned for the end of the month. Now the city may ask taxpayers for another $2.2 million to replace the faulty structure with a new skate park.
It’s not out of line to ask voters to rebuild the park, said Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, head of the parks department when the project was built.
“This is our reality. It meets the needs of small and big kids and adults,” Caronna told the Planet Wednesday. “We can’t walk away from something so popular.”
If placed on the November ballot and approved by voters, a $2.2 million bond would cost the average homeowner $3 per year. “If there were errors, should the city not be able to have a skate park?” Caronna asked.
The city is currently trying to determine who is at fault for the deterioration and may pursue litigation against those responsible, Caronna said, referring the Planet to Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan for details on the investigation. Cowan did not return Planet calls.
Various engineers, designers and builders worked on the project over eight years, including Doug Fielding’s Association of Field Users, the Site Design Group of Carlsbad, San Francisco-based URS Corp., an engineering company also engaged in defense contracting owned by Richard Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Altman General Engineering of Yuba City.
At one point the city itself took the lead on the project, Caronna said. Contracts and details of the work of each company were in storage and unavailable until after the Planet deadline, according to Public Information Officer Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.
History of problems
Problems with the skate park go back to the purchase of the land from UC Berkeley in 1999. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in December 2000 that the parcel was the site of a former shoe factory and other reports noted that UC Berkeley had disposed of toxic soil on the parcel.
At the time of purchase, Councilmembers Diane Woolley and Kriss Worthington questioned the $2.8 million purchase of the 6.4-acre site destined for the skate park and two soccer fields, arguing that the city should have done more research into toxics issues before buying the land.
Another concern was that the groundwater table was high, which created problems when digging out the skate bowls.
On Nov. 17, 2000, almost as soon as work began on the park bowls, one of which was to be nine feet deep, crews discovered hexavalent chromium (chrome 6) in the groundwater. Contractors had installed a pumping system to keep ground water from entering the bowl.
It is now believed that the toxic plume may have been drawn under the skate park due to the action of the pumps. The chrome 6 was thought to have originated with Western Roto Engravers Color-tech, a block away. By 2000, the company had ceased to use the chemical, but it was known to be in the soil.
City watchdog L A Wood wrote in a November 2000 commentary in the Planet: “It doesn’t take a hydrologist or toxicologist to understand this blunder, just a few facts and a little common sense. The ABCs of real estate say that before a property known to be contaminated is purchased, that either the buyer or the seller requests a Phase One technical site review which … also addresses off-site concerns. Such a study reduces the likelihood of being blindsided and stuck with the cleanup costs, such as those associated with the “newly” discovered toxic plume.”
He continued, “If the zoning process had been conducted responsibly in 1998, a complete Phase One would have been performed at Harrison, if only to legally affirm the assumptions put forth in the re-zoning of the site for recreational use.”
The city decided to have the park redesigned above the water table.
Karen Craig, a member of the Disability Commission, wrote the Berkeley Voice in December 2000: “I do not believe raising the level of concrete will be the answer. Do we want our kids skateboarding in concrete bowls that supposedly cover up contamination?”
Craig said Doug Fielding, first a lobbyist and then a contractor for the project, should share the blame.
“Doug Fielding, who convinced the city to okay these parks and playing fields, has the contract to build the park through the Association of Sports Field Users. He still claims the concrete will protect the kids from contamination. I didn’t believe him the first time and I don’t believe him the second,” she wrote.
The redesigned park held its grand opening Sept. 15, 2002, but was shut down three months later, when city workers again found low levels of chrome 6.
A citypress release announcing the June 7, 2003 re-opening of the park stated: “The city has cleaned and tested the skate park to assure that chrome 6-contaminated-water infiltration occurring last winter will not affect the use of the facility during dry weather ... The city has also retained a geotechnical consulting firm to determine why the groundwater has penetrated the skate park despite a design that should have prevented this situation. In addition, this firm will propose long-term solutions to prevent such an event from happening in the future.”
Still, problems persist. While chrome 6 is no longer a problem, Scott Ferris, recreation manager, told the Planet on Fridaythat he saw the cracks and crevices at the park when he came to work with the city two years ago.
“It’s gotten a lot worse in the last two years,” Ferris said, noting that skate-park specialist A.J. Vasconi General Engineering of Concord has a $40,000 contract to work on the park, beginning at the end of the month. That fix will not be permanent—it is expected to last about two years, Ferris said, noting that the funds will come from the Public Works Emergency Fund.
“We don’t know where the problems are coming from,” Caronna said.
Toxics Manager Nabil Al Hadithy said he would hazard an educated guess, but underscored that he is not an engineer.
“The cracking has nothing to do with the ground water,” Al Hadithy told the Planet Friday. It is likely either a faulty design of the structure or the use of poor materials or both, he said, explaining that the ground water should be able to infiltrate the structure without cracking the concrete.
LA Wood told the Planet Friday that there’s plenty of blame to spread around, but the bottom line is that the city should have had better oversight. “This is city government at its worst,” he said.
Berkeley Skateboarding Park Closes Because of Pollutant
Charles Burress, San Francisco Chronicle, page A13 January 4, 2003
A popular Berkeley skateboarding park rated the best in the Bay Area has been closed because hexavalent chromium -- the pollutant made infamous by the movie "Erin Brockovich" -- was found leaking into it.
The opening of the long-planned park on Sept. 14 had already been delayed several months by the fall 2000 discovery of the dangerous chemical at the site which forced a major City officials say the health risk is very low and that the closure is temporary, but they are not sure when it can reopen. Parallel investigations are under way into the risk of exposure for park users and the cause of the leak, said Lisa Caronna, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department. "We're taking an overly cautious step," Caronna said of the closure, which came Dec. 27 after only 15 weeks of operation.
A small amount of tan-color contaminated water -- about three cafe lattes worth -- was found to have leaked through construction joints into the bottom of the deeper bowls at the 18,000square-foot concrete facility, Caronna said.
The concentration of the chemical was 120 parts per billion in one bowl and 320 parts in another, only about one-tenth the concentration found when the chemical was detected earlier at the site, she said. State standards for drinking water permit 50 parts per billion, she said. A toxicologist consulted by the city said there was no risk to those who jumped the fence arid skated through the liquid, Caronna said.
A member of the citizen Community Environmental Advisory Commission, L A Wood, criticized the city for persisting in its plans for the park in a contaminated light-industrial area.
The park is at Fifth and Harrison streets near Interstate 80 in west Berkeley. The chemical, also known as chromium six, was traced to the nearby operations of Western Roto Engravers Colortech.
"When you start down a road and the first decision you make in the wrong one, then every subsequent decision seems to compound itself," Wood said. Word of the closure has been slow to leak out, and skateboarders continue to migrate to the park.
"It really sucks," said Eric Langevin, 28, a Berkeley resident who stood forlornly with his skateboard under his arm Friday as he read the sign saying, "Caution: This site contains polluted water. Stay out!"
Haven for Skateboard
Aficionados Coming to Berkeley Skateboard Park Land to Cost $2-8 Million
Cecily Burt, Oakland Tribune December 9, 1999
Berkeley's thrashers are going legit.
The Berkeley City Council has sidestepped opponents' concerns
about safety and air quality and unanimously agreed to transform the
Harrison Street skateboard park and sports field complex from a field
of dreams to turf and concrete reality.
By July, young skateboard aficionados will no longer have
to beg adults for rides to faraway skateboard parks. Their illegal sidewalk
and school yard riding days will be a distant memory, along with expensive
tickets written by intolerant and unamused police officers.
"We don't have a real place to skate" Nick Calvert,
a l4-year-old in T-shirt and baggy pants, told council members Tuesday
night as he lobbied for the West Berkeley skate park. "We get kicked
off places and we get tickets."
Berkeley has only a handful of fields for baseball, soccer
and softball. The popularity of soccer and the rising number of young
girls participating in team sports has created a scheduling nightmare
for coaches and park directors.
Groups have lobbied the mayor and city officials for more
sports fields for years. Their pleas turned urgent after theUniversity
of California, Berkeley, indicated it would reclaim a portion of the
Fielding Field facility on the Albany-Berkeley border to make way for
new student housing at University Village.
The city went after a vacant, 6.4-acre parcel owned by
UC Berkeley at 5th and Harrison streets, near the Harrison House homeless
shelter and adjacent to Fielding Field's soccer and softball complex.
The city rezoned the land last year to allow recreational uses.
After months of negotiations, the council voted Tuesday
to buy the land for 2.8 million and spend $1.1 million to build the
skateboard park and two regulation sized soccer-softball fields, install
fencing, lighting and walkways, and construct a field house. The money
includes $75,000 to restore portions of Codornices Creek and $125,000
for shelter upgrades. The facility will close at 10 p.m.
This won't be any typical skateboard park. The kids designed
their own 18,000-square foot facility -- one of the largest in Northern
California -- out of papier-mâché.
They fashioned curbs, raised blocks, four separate bowls,
ledges, decks, ramps and an "octagon fun box": the only thing
missing is the emergency room for sprains and broken bones.
The skateboard park will cost $200,000 to build, but the
city will save money by letting volunteers create the fields.Fielding
Field - a lovely swath of green on the north side of Codornices Creek
- was created by Doug Fielding and other soccer parents and volunteers.
They persuaded UC Berkeley officials to give them a long-term
lease for very little money. Parents and coaches maintain the fields.
Thousands of Berkeley kids play soccer and softball there.
It cost the city $100,000 several years ago.
The parents and kids who jammed the City Council chambers
Tuesday night with signs saying "Lower Harrison, it's now or never,"
said it was time kids got their fair share.
"I'm relieved and ecstatic," said Ellen Brotsky,
coordinator of the Albany Berkeley Girl's Softball league. It would
have been a terrible negative message to the kids if it hadn't happened.
They've been going to meetings for four years."
The council dispatched any opposition.
L A Wood warned the kids would be exposed to unhealthy
air from the area's industrial facilities. Industrial business owners
in the area, such as Libby Labs, Bayer Corp. and Body Time, expressed
concern about kids mingling in an areawith heavy truck traffic. They
asked for security guards at the new park and assurances that complaints
about noise and smell from their businesses would not impact industry
expansion in West Berkeley.
The council agreed to monitor air quality at the new facility
and work with businesses to make sure adequate signs and notices are
But Calvert and Wyatt Miner, 17, said smoke and
smells from businesses couldn't possibly be as bad as the auto exhaust
fumes the youths inhale in parking garages.
Construction Imminent on City's First Skate Park
Clare Curley, Berkeley Voice, October 19, 2000
Imminent on City's First Skate Park: West Berkeley Site of Toxic-material
Cleanup Will Be Used to House the Skating Facility and Two Soccer Fields
A 5-foot-deep hole in the ground surrounded by weeds
and a chain- link fence at Harrison and Fifth streets hardly
hints that Berkeley's first skate park will soon take over the small
plot of land.
For nearly a year, the site has had more the appearance
of an abandoned vegetable garden than an extreme-sport attraction. Small
signs hang from the fence warning people that entering the site could
be hazardous to their health.
Not for long, though.
Mark Mennucci, who is overseeing the development of a
new park for skateboarders and in-line skaters, says he is poised to
give the nod for construction to begin.
Named after Gabe Catalfo, a sports-minded Berkeley teen
who died of leukemia in 1998, the structure should be completed by spring.
Along with two large soccer fields and a field house, the whole area
will form what is known as Harrison Park.
The project was halted last year when the city discovered
chromium-6, a toxic substance, in the ground at the site.
"It's been a huge learning curve for the city in
terms of how we track these plumes that are underground," said
city Parks Recreation and Waterfront Director Lisa Caronna.
The city hauled off a lot of soil and treated the groundwater
before releasing it safely into the sewer system.
Since then, the hole where the structure will sit has
been filled with three feet of rock so groundwater won't percolate to
The $385,000 project is being funded by a Proposition
12 grant, but part of the skate park, about 20 percent, will be put
on hold until more money can be raised. Skaters hope materials and money
will be donated to finish the project.
"We are scaling back slightly" from the original
design, said Caronna, The park is still comprised of 18,000 square feet,
but some of that area will be flatter.
The redesign mainly changed the depth, not the shape,
leaving plans for various banks, bowls and a host of other attractions
ideal for rolling through or hopping over.
Much of the action at the park will be below surface level,
with only about three feet elevated.
Though made from concrete, French says the ground will
actually be safer than asphalt, which is rougher on the skin. A track
with obstacles will also circle the outside so skaters can do sidewalk-style
It could also prevent injuries.
"Right now kids are skateboarding in people's driveways
and getting towed behind buses, (or going up any) wall with a little
bit of a bank," said Nathan French, a permit specialist who works
for the city.
The park, bounded by Fifth, Harrison, and Fourth streets
and Codornices Creek, is on a 6-acre parcel the city bought in 1999
from UC Berkeley for almost $3 million.
The plan was spawned five years ago when the mother of
a skateboarder refused to pay a ticket her son had received. She said
she would pay it when he had somewhere in the city to skate.
The city responded by enlisting a group of local skateboarders
to help with the design phases of a skate park. Two years ago they sat
down with flour, water and paste and created little structures of what
they envisioned. Architect Mike McIntyre of Site Design Group used their
concept when creating his proposal.
"Most of what you'll see (from the street) is a bunch
of floating helmets," said French, who helped get local input during
the project's planning phase.
Yet some environmental activists still say the project
-- surrounded by factories, the freeway and train tracks -- is environmentally
"The air quality there is only going to get worse,"
said L A Wood, who fought the project even before chromium 6 particles
were discovered in the air and ground. "I'm also concerned about
heavy (metal) particles coming out of the stacks nearby."
His solution? Relocate it.
Part of the condition of the project's EIR was that the
city would conduct ongoing pollution studies, so the possibility of
stalling the project sometime in the future still remains.
But skateboarders, who aren't known to shy away from danger
may not be fazed by their surroundings, French, a UC Berkeley graduate
in environmental planning, thinks the environmental threat has been
He pointed out that because of the way many cities are
laid out, playing fields tend to be located next to highways in less-than-pristine
The air surrounding the new park is a concern, he
admitted. But, compared to the drainage ditches and pipe outlets he's
crawled around in pursuing his sport, he views the location as the best
New Skate Park for Youths to Open: Council
Approves Rules Ordinance Despite Residents' Concerns
Meredith Mandell, Daily Californian,
November 20, 2000
It used to be that Berkeley police officers would kick
four and five-year-old kids out of city parks if they were caught with
But after last week's City Council passage of an ordinance
that finalizes the rules for the new Berkeley skate park, local skateboarders
have the last laugh.
Public outcry from skateboard enthusiasts and a group
called Friends for a Berkeley Skate Park have led city officials to
construct the 18,000-square-foot park at the intersection of Harrison
and Fifth Streets in West Berkeley.
The skate park, which is scheduled to open in December,
has not been a project without hurdles. In February environmentalist
L A Wood filed an appeal to the city that questioned the park's air
quality. Wood's appeal was based on a report from the city health officer who said emissions from local industrial plants and
the I-80 freeway will put children who play at the park at risk, especially
those who suffer from asthma. Wood's appeal was overruled.
In an effort to win over those who still have concerns,
the city has gone out of its way to make the skateboard facility state-of-the-art,
hiring a private engineering firm that specializes in designing skate
The park boasts a "combination bowl" that is
eight feet deep and a smaller three to six-foot bowl for less-experienced
skaters to learn on. "These bowls are, kind of like swimming pools instead
of half-pipes," said city landscape architect Mark Mennucci. "As
far as I know, the combination bowls will be deeper than any other park
in the state."
In addition, the park has a large street plaza that is
three feet deep with a series of transitions. The city Parks and Waterfront Department estimates the
annual cost to light and maintain the park to be $12,000. Mennucci expects
that the skaters using the park will abide by a skater "code of
ethics" in following the rules.
"It's a little like surfing," Mennucci said.
"If you're on the first wave no one else should get in your
The parks will allow patrons to use the facility from
6:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. City officials emphasized that they will not
tolerate any activity on park grounds after it closes. There will be
a locked fence to keep locals out.
In addition, the city requires that only people with skateboards
and roller blades enter the park so bystanders don't get hit by "flying
skateboards," Mennucci said.
Another rule is that skaters cannot enter unless they
are wearing protective equipment.
"If you don't provide these rules you can't take
advantage of immunity provisions against liability," said city
project planner Edward Murphy. "Parents could say, ŒGee whiz,
why didn't they let us know it was dangerous?'"
Questions have also risen over whether the skate park
will attract crime.
"Neighbors in the industrial area are worried that
kids coming down the street on their skateboards might get hit by a
truck," Murphy said. "Graffiti and trash have been worries
as well, but the city intends to monitor the situation closely."
Kate Obenhour, a spokesperson for Friends for a Berkeley
Skate Park said she is annoyed by neighbors' fears.
"I'm beginning to be irritated with the undeserved
labels that skateboarders have gotten," Obenhour said. "These
kids are genuine athletes -- just like soccer and baseball players."
Obenhour said the negative stereotypes of skateboarders
have led them to adopt a criminal mentality of themselves. She said
the skateboarders are a responsible group and will help monitor activities
at the park.
"It breaks my heart that my own son says he hates
cops," she said.
Obenhour attributes the lack of space for skateboarding
as the reason why skateboarders have been often associated with deviance.
"You can't lock these kids in a closet,"
Obenhour said. "These kids have been underserved in Berkeley and
communities across the country."
Chemical Stalls Skate Facility: 'Erin Brockovich'
Pollutant in Berkeley
Hendrick, San Francisco Chronicle,
December 5, 2000
The opening of a long-awaited Berkeley skateboard park
has been put on hold while the city cleans up a chemical found in groundwater
on the site that is the same toxin made infamous in the film "Erin
But a city official said yesterday that the chemical,
hexavalent chromium, posed no health threat because the contaminated
area was not used for drinking water.
The skate park, along with two just completed athletic
fields for youth soccer teams, was being built on the site of a former
shoe factory at Harrison and Fifth streets in industrial West Berkeley.
City workers testing groundwater at the excavation of
the 18,000-square-foot park in mid-November found levels of hexavalent
chromium as high as 2.1 parts per million, more than 40 times the level
considered hazardous in drinking water.
According to Nabil Al-Hadithy, the head of Berkeley's
Toxics Management Division, the risk of exposure through skin contact
or inhaling dust from contaminated soil is minimal to workers on the
site, and there is no threat of contamination to drinking water.
The construction site has been closed off and work stopped.
No one in the city will say when or whether the skate park will be completed,
although it won't be before spring.
"We don't want to take any chances," said Mayor
Shirley Dean. "First, we want to stop the pollution, wherever its
coming from. Second, we need to figure out what to do about it. And
step three is figuring out who's to blame."
The source of the chemical appears to be a chrome plating
company, Western Roto Engravers Color-tech, located a block away at
Sixth and Harrison streets. City officials have been working to get
the company to clean up the hexavalent chromium on its own property
for the past three years and now believe a plume of the toxin has seeped
under the skate park site.
While the city conducted a $25,000 study of the soil
and groundwater of the 6.4 acres in 1997, it was determined to be a safe
area that posed no significant health risks. Partially as a result of
these studies, the city decided to purchase the property from UC Berkeley,
which owned it since the 1950s.
The university used the area primarily for storage and
did not know of any chromium 6 on the site when the property was sold,
although a site assessment in the early 1980s revealed soil contamination
by lead, most likely from previous industrial users, said UC Berkeley
spokesperson Marie Felde.
"The university had no idea that there was any chromium
at the site," she said. "Everything that we knew about we
submitted to the city."
The responsible party that will cover the costly repair
ventures is yet to be determined. The city has alleged, however, that
the source of the chemical is a neighboring chrome plating facility,
Western Roto Engravers/Color Tech.
"The city has made a mistake and I am hoping they
are not going to blame others for it," said Bill MacKay, vice president
of the company. He added that the company has worked with the city for
the past nine years.
L A Wood, a Berkeley environmental activist who has voiced
his disapproval of the project since the start, warned that there would
be environmental hazards. He said the recent discovery of chromium 6
is a "major failure" for the city. "(The city) didn't do a normal evaluation (of the
site)," he said. "They should have flagged off the site as
a problem, but instead the council allowed the environmental commission
to spend (only) 25K on answering whether children would be safe." Wood warned that the chromium is now headed toward the
No skateboarders were in sight on Fifth and Harrison streets
yesterday, although several construction workers and bulldozers were
preparing the bordering grounds for sidewalks. Work stopped in the actual
park as soon as the construction team was notified about the chromium,
said Jim Segler, superintendent of the park project. Site clearing began
last April, and since then they have worked in different phases of construction.
"We've been told we're okay and that there is no
health threat to our workers or the neighbors," he said. "As
long as we are not diving and bathing in the water, we re okay."
The city hired an independent toxicologist to study
the area and report back on his findings within a week.
Soccer, Skateboard Park Score Final Goal
Marc Albert, Berkeley Voice, December 10, 1999
Mayor Shirley Dean will certainly need a new pair of shoes if she plans on fulfilling her year-old promise to be the first skateboarder to challenge the city's planned skateboard park.
The long held dream of a skateboard park and adjoining soccer fields in Berkeley's northwest crushed the net Tuesday when the City Council approved purchase of 6.4 acres site from the University of California for $2.9 million.
"When I started this my daughter was in elementary school," recalled athletic supporter Doug Fielding. "By the time these fields are playable she'll be one year away from college. I'm just happy I haven't died of a heart attack or old age."
After three years of study and hearings before about 30 city commissions including a contentious campaign to re-zone the lot allowing recreation on the former industrial parcel, the council approved purchase and granted waivers to a nonprofit group set up by Fielding to develop the site. Construction will be supervised by the group and take advantage of volunteer labor.
Construction of the fields and skatepark is expected to commence in March and hopefully be completed by August.
"We need a place where we can skate without getting tickets or being hassled," said 12-year-old King Middle School student Jesse Miller-Gordon, campaigning for the park. Gordon-Miller said his parents had to drive him to Alameda to use a skatepark.
Some community activists like L A Wood campaigned against the park location arguing that locating the park between Berkeley's industrial core and the Interstate 80 freeway would subject field users to high levels of pollution.
A report by Public Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung found that a two-day, 1997 study of air quality at the site did not include enough data and was outdated because freeway traffic has increased by a full 20 percent since the study. After the vote Namkung said the findings should be put in perspective. "Regardless of what the air quality is like down there, it is better than it is on any day in the whole Los Angeles Basin, and people obviously live down there, participate in sports and have children there. You have to put it in a real world context."
Wood and others had earlier tried to convince officials to relocate Berkeley Public Works Corporation Yard to the Harrison Street site and have the fields built at the corp yard.
The relocation, Wood opined, would remove city truck traffic from a residential neighborhood, and put the field closer to homes, eliminating some vehicular trips. The idea was opposed because it would have cost more and taken longer to complete.
A consortium of West Berkeley manufacturers expressed some reservations about the fields. "We do not want future complaints from playing field users about odors from industry to limit our ability to conduct lawful business," reads a letter from the 45-member Berkeley Association of Industrial Companies.
"Furthermore, we do not want to limit the expansion of surrounding businesses once the area includes children. Would existing business using hazardous materials be limited in the future by state law because of the presence of children in the area?"
Dean said the location, adjoining a field constructed by Fielding's group several years ago would create 14-acres of playing fields and therefore made sense.
"Let me be the first to say 'hurrah,'" Councilwoman Polly Armstrong said prior to the vote as girls in soccer uniforms and skateboard carrying boys cheered.
"This is the university backing off from other projects so that parents don't have to take their kids to places like Fremont and Danville that are blessed with more open space. It's not Pleasantville, folks, it's Berkeley, we live in an urban environment."
Included in the measure is funding for three air quality monitoring stations, an idea that at least one council member took issue with. "You really are a great cheerleader Polly," Councilwoman Diane Woolley remarked. "But we still have the corp yard that belongs in west Berkeley and the park that belongs at the corp yard. The suggestion to build the field first and monitor it later, that just doesn't make sense to me. We should do the monitoring first."
Wyatt Miller, a 17-year-old Berkeley High Student said environmental reservations made little sense and that without a park, skateboarders are relegated to major streets. "Four of my favorite places to skate are subterranean parking garages. Skateboarders with asthma can use an inhaler, but skateboarders who get hit by a car have to go straight to the hospital."