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Underground skatepark rolls past city bureaucracy

For seven years, skateboarders have been building their own skateboard park by hand in an otherwise unused tunnel under East…

By lzapg , in Life , on October 17, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

A skateboarder rides the wall at Leeside Tunnel.

For seven years, skateboarders have been building their own skateboard park by hand in an otherwise unused tunnel under East Hastings Street. With that space now being incorporated into the new plan for Hastings Park , many skateboarders are nervous that city bureaucracy will constrict this do-it-yourself community project.

One of the volunteers who worked on the new quarter-pipe, getting ready to drop in.

So far, skateboarders are continuing with their do-it-yourself construction efforts at the 49-metre-long tunnel they have named Leeside. But they wonder if the city’s current hands-off attitude will last.

“[The city is] not asking questions.  They’re not sending risk-management down.  They’re not saying stop.  They’re not saying go.  They’re not saying anything, so we’re not asking,” says Michelle Pezel, president of the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition.

Pezel says it would be a problem for skateboarders if the city started to intervene, even in small ways, because it would slow work down and raise construction costs — a significant road bump for a small group that works with razor-thin finances.  “It’s not in our budget,” she says.

Official city skateboard parks, in contrast to Leeside, are insured on the condition that there are no changes from the professional design and construction. Because of that city officials dismantle unauthorized construction at any official skateboard park.

At Leeside — and Pezel closes her eyes as she says the words —  city officials are “just doing this.”

Park board commissioner Sarah Blyth isn’t turning a blind eye. But she emphasizes there has been no park board involvement in design or construction “because that is the way that the community wants it.”

“It’s built by the community and governed by the community, and people take care of it, so there’s no reason why it should change,” she says. “It’s an underground thing and it needs to stay underground in some ways, because that’s what makes it awesome.”

Blyth was one of the early users of Leeside Tunnel and identifies herself as a big supporter of the skateboard park remaining as it is.  The city officially agrees, emphasizing that although the tunnel will now be integrated into the park, there’s no plan to change its philosophy.

Pathways will be built at both ends of the tunnel, says Dave Hutch, project manager for the Hastings Park plan, creating “more of a front door to Leeside… opening it up a bit, making it a bit more welcoming, and still ensuring that do-it-yourself culture is retained and nurtured in there.”

“We’re not really impacting what goes on in the tunnel,” Hutch emphasizes. “It’s very much a grassroots-driven space, so that’s quite unique in terms of parks and open spaces in the city, which tend to be designed through input from the community, but generally professional designers are involved.”

The tunnel’s imperfect features draw skateboaders who see them as more authentic than the smooth surfaces of official parks.

The name Leeside is a tribute to Lee Matasi, who started painting graffiti and skateboarding in the tunnel in the late ‘90s, when it was illegal to skateboard on city streets.  On Dec. 3, 2005, Matasi was murdered outside of a Gastown nightclub after a verbal exchange with a stranger, who had been firing a gun into the air. A memorial was held at the tunnel.

Before 2005, skateboard features in the tunnel were mostly made out of wood, which made them susceptible to rotting, the occasional fire, and dismantling by city officials.  The skateboarders decided to construct something more permanent.  “We started building stuff out of concrete because it’s better, obviously. It lasts longer, and so we just rolled with it, and no one was saying we couldn’t,” says Pezel.

The money for that concrete has been raised by the skateboard community and is deposited into a common account at the nearby Hastings-Sunrise Community Centre.  The group has sold Leeside coffee, T-shirts, and signature skateboard shoes to raise money for materials.

The skateboarders also got $15,000 from a special deal with Vans Canada. The company produced a “Leeside signature shoe,” which gives the company credibility among its core group of customers, and turned all the profits over to the Leeside Tunnel builders.The shoe profits provided the $2,000 worth of concrete used for the first phase of the new quarter-pipe ramp, just finished in early October.

The rest of that money is sitting in an account waiting to be used, the sooner the better as far as Pezel is concerned.  She says there are already plans for how and when to spend it. Now, she and her group hope it can all be finished without city officials interfering.

“I think we can get away with it, but if we got the city involved, that would cost us like $40,000 dollars.  So we’re not really interested in getting them involved.“

Same park, different uses: opposite ends of the new Hastings Park area.