City to Blame for
Skate Park Fiasco


City to Blame for Skate Park Fiasco
L A Wood, Berkeley Voice, Jan. 10, 03

Last September, Berkeley celebrated the grand opening of the Harrison skate park to the enthusiastic cheers of many kids and their parents.The community had waited almost three years from the time the project was first conceived until it was finally ready to open. After being in operation for only four months, the gates of the skate park were padlocked last week by the Parks Department. This 180-degree maneuver by the city to close the facility and post health warnings has more than young skateboarders wondering what went wrong this time.

Recently, city staff discovered cracks in the newly constructed concrete bowls, allowing groundwater to seep in. The puddles of water were then tested and found to contain Chromium 6, the carcinogen made famous by the movie, Erin Brockovich.Two years ago, the city encountered this same toxic groundwater when first attempting to construct the skate bowls. This earlier accident, and the costly cleanup that followed, revealed that most of the immediate area has been impacted by an underground chromium 6 plume from a metal engraver located several blocks upgradient.

Frankly, the city has only itself to blame. The staff failed to conduct a comprehensive environmental review when the city purchased the property and chose to forego a site evaluation when first planning for the deep bowl design of the skate facility. Only because the City of Berkeley is both the banker and the developer could these blunders go unchecked. No bank would have financed the purchase of an industrial site without a Phase I study. This site review would have uncovered the Chromium 6 groundwater problem and saved much staff time and taxpayer's money in management, cleanup and redesign.

Harrison Skatepark Debacle

A year ago, vowing not to repeat its prior mistakes, the Parks Department finally undertook an environmental evaluation as part of the redesign process for the skate bowls. The city even contracted with a special environmental design firm to engineer "containment" of the chromium 6 and to ensure that there would be "zero seepage". Yet, even with all this, it was obvious that the redesigned skate park facility was headed for unavoidable problems.

The park's skate bowls are much like a swimming pool structure. Many of us have seen basements, underground parking facilities or concrete ponds, and have noticed how groundwater destabilizes foundations, often cracking the structure. This concern over hydrology has been consistently underestimated at the Harrison site.

The skate park property adjoins lower Codornices Creek, and like much of northwest Berkeley, the groundwater level is quite shallow. The city's project staff was warned during the public review of the project that a subsurface design would make structural cracking a strong possibility given the site's hydrology. There is no question that this subsurface structure should have not been permitted at this location, especially for the construction of a children's recreational facility.

The redesign has also failed to isolate the toxic groundwater plume. Even with the appearance of cracks in the skate bowls, chromium 6 should not have been found in the seeping water. The redesign was supposed to create a toxic treatment barrier that would control and neutralize this dangerous chemical. Given the concentrations now being reported, it is apparent that the city's efforts have done little to dilute or contain this toxic plume.

Unfortunately, the long-term management of the toxic groundwater has now become quite problematic when it could have been completely avoided. Instead of evaluating the property for what it would bear, the city chose to "reverse engineer" the project and went looking for ways to accommodate the skate bowl construction in place of scrutinizing the troubled site. City staff proposed a high tech solution, both to rationalize the unusual construction project, and to silence critics who have spoken out against any subsurface structures at that location. Now, staff must go back and re-engineer a fix for the redesign.

The city has hired a toxicologist to assuage immediate health concerns over exposure to chromium 6 at the skate park. Their risk assessment will undoubtedly minimize the dangers from exposure. (In any case, the report won't be able to predict if concentrations will be constant or what the health impacts will be if the skate bowl cracks function as a conduit, drawing even more toxic groundwater onsite and into the bowls.) Although some see this action as responsible, others have asked why the city's zoning requirement for parent-signed environmental waivers has not been fully implemented. Perhaps the answer is linked to the fact that there is no city staffing of the skate park, a strategy devised to relieve the City of Berkeley from any direct liability.

Even so, the city has had to bear the liability of its mismanagement and engineering errors. In private industry, this project would have nudged the contractor towards bankruptcy, or at least, would have cost a few of its company's engineers their jobs. The cost for the Harrison skate park, with its series of overruns and poor decisions, now stands at more than $800,000! Additionally, more than a half million dollars has been spent for the hundreds of staff hours consumed by this project.

There are alternatives to this fiscal madness. Santa Cruz has a portable, above-ground skate park. No chromium 6, no young skateboarders navigating their way through industrial corridors, and all for a fraction of the price Berkeley has paid. (So far.)

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