Chicago Crowdsources a Skate Park

Skaters, bikers, and a park advocate are breaking new ground in Chicago's Grant Park.

Situated on the Lake Michigan waterfront and home to treasures like Millennium Park, Grant Park is Chicago’s front yard. So it sends quite a message building a massive skate park at the south end of this prized 319-acre green space; as far as urban planning goes, it’s exact opposite of “get off my lawn.” It makes the proposed skate and wheel park, set to be finished later this year, such a coup, both for the city's skating and biking community, which rallied around the concept, and Bob O’Neill, President of the Grant Park Advisory Council and Conservancy, who has shepherded this plan forward while integrating community feedback at every step, a model of crowdsourced public planning.

“Parks need to adapt to the city,” he says. “I want to make sure this is a good example of public and private design. Good design and architecture is transformative. It can change behavior, and it’s important.”

When it’s finished later this year, the proposed three-acre, plaza-style skate and wheel park at Roosevelt, near the south end of Grant Park, will feature an array of design elements reflecting both the needs of skaters and BMX bikers and the history of the site. Set to be built where the now demolished Central Station, a nine-story building and clock tower constructed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, once stood, the skate park will feature elements resembling a train platform, with a pedestrian bridge overlooking the park. Limestone pieces left over from the towering station will be incorporated into the design, done by Altamanu Architects. O’Neill wants to add railroad rails for skaters to use, as well as skateable sculptures and railroad ties. Along with a planned public amphitheatre, it’s a huge reversal for a fallow plot of sloped land.

“More powerful design and architecture comes from difficult circumstances,” says O’Neill. “It’s an incredible opportunity to change that area in just a few months.”

While the Chicago Park District Board just approved the plan last week, there’s still a lot of work to be done on the estimated $2.5 million project (a deadline to utilize money from a TIF, or tax increment finance district, means the project has to be built this year). It’s been a long time in the making, according to Alan Butella, owner of local skateboarding company Character and one of the community representatives who’s worked with O’Neill.

“It’s the biggest project for skating the city has taken on,” he says. “It’s been a big pipe dream to build this park.”

The vision goes back to O'Neill’s previous attempt at building a temporary park like this in 2006 to test the concept. At the time, O’Neill said, people frowned on it. So he decided to get organized, collaborating and consulting with a group of skaters and bikers, forming the Grant Park Conservancy & Advisory Council Skate Committee to find out what they wanted. After he heard that skaters downtown liked pulling tricks on a sculpture in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), he decided to incorporate sculptures into the plan. He brought boarders to the architect's offices. When he ran into some bureaucratic push back about bringing a skate park to the crown jewel of the city’s park system, he rallied supporters to send in letters. More than 100 arrived, extolling the virtues of skating and biking, and helped win public support for the project. After years of pushing and campaigning, those working for the park will be able to "do something that inspires others," says O'Neill.

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