Berkeley went to sleep Friday night a progressive college town, but it woke up a skateboard mecca.
The long-awaited Berkeley Skatepark, located beside the Harrison Park soccer fields, opened for business Saturday to the delight of hundreds of boys, some from as far away as Hayward.
When the ribbon was cut, throngs of skaters exploded into the park to submerge into 8 1/2-foot bowls and hurl themselves into the foggy morning sky.
“It’s freaking awesome,” said David O’Kefe and Ross Wunderlich of El Cerrito.
Professionals gushed as well. San Francisco-based “THRASHER” magazine,a skating staple, has already declared Berkeley’s skatepark the best in the Bay Area.
George Johnson of Altman General Engineering, the park’s designer, said size sets Berkeley’s park apart. At 18,000 square feet, the skatepark dwarfs other local venues.
“It’s faster and bigger so skaters can skate with a continuous flow,” Johnson said.
More importantly, skaters say, the park will legitimize their sport and spare them the harassment they say they have received for years.
“Finally kids have a place to hang out where they’re not going to get hassled.” said Wyatt Miller, a Berkeley skater.
Miller and his mother Kate Obenour started lobbying the city for a skate park after Wyatt and his fellow 12-year old friends were handcuffed and given $75 citations for skating on the UC Berkeley campus.
“I didn’t want my son to be an outlaw,” Obenour said. So in 1997, she organized local skaters to attend City Council and Parks and Recreation Commission meetings. After two years of persistent lobbying, council approved funds for the skatepark.
But that was just the opening saga of the skatepark’s development.
Scheduled to open in 2001 at a cost of $380,00, the park was derailed when the original contractor, Morris Construction, hit groundwater contaminated with the carcinogen chromium 6. The city spent $265,000 to clean up the chemicals, and built a gravel base below the concrete bowls to prevent further contamination.
In 2001, the city allocated an additional $400,000 to complete the project, with the final cost now estimated at $750,000.
Not everyone is thrilled about the park. Some local businesses fear that an influx of kids from around the Bay Area could increase crime and vandalism in the heavily industrial neighborhood at the edge of northwest Berkeley.
“Everyone’s kind of nervous because it’s new,” said Doug Fielding of the Association of Playing Field Users.
But city officials say they have alleviated the concerns of local merchants.
“We’re going to have someone there [supervising] two hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then from 6:30 until closing at 9:30,” said Ed Murphy, project manager for the city’s Parks and Waterfront Department.
Murphy added that the police department would make frequent patrols of the park to make sure that it wasn’t being used during off-hours.
Berkeley skaters say the park’s appeal will improve the neighborhood and provide them an opportunity to make friends with kids from other cities.
“There’s going to be a whole community that develops here,” Miller said, adding that regulars will make sure that skaters respect the park and the surrounding area.
Like many Berkeley skaters, 13-year old Jonah Most has skated at the Alameda skatepark, and recognized a lot of familiar faces. “It was so hard to get [to Alameda],” Most said. “It’s great to have a place now where you can just roll out of bed and come and see a lot of your friends.”