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Berkeley Skate Park Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

By Judith Scher
Tuesday April 08, 2008
A young skater takes part in the city’s spring break skateboarding day camp at the park at Fifth and Harrison streets in West Berkeley.
Judith Scherr
A young skater takes part in the city’s spring break skateboarding day camp at the park at Fifth and Harrison streets in West Berkeley.

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 LA 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 city press 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.” 


Problems continue 

Still, problems persist. While chrome 6 is no longer a problem, Scott Ferris, recreation manager, told the Planet on Friday that 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.