Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013, 3:01 AM
For far too long, it was assumed that skateboarding and public parks went together about as well as oil and water. A decade ago, that notion led to skaters' being driven from Philadelphia's LOVE Park, an internationally heralded mecca for the sport. Skaters were seen as an undesirable subculture and a danger to those pursuing more traditional park pleasures, like sitting on benches and eating lunch.
So it is a measure of how far our ideas about urban space have evolved that the deluxe skate park opening next Wednesday on Schuylkill Banks, just south of the Waterworks, has been designed in an ecumenical spirit that welcomes skateboarders and passive users alike. Mixed in with the concrete ledges and curving banks at Paine's Park are shady nooks for spectators, a stage for concerts and movie nights, and a viewing platform for taking in the lush sweep of river. The assumption now is that everyone can - and should - get along.
Paine's Park, one of the first in the country to welcome all users, is a testament to the determination of the city's skating community to create a haven. Initially, Mayor John F. Street's 2003 offer to set aside the riverfront site for skaters seemed an empty gesture, because he left it up to the Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund to raise the $4.5 million for construction. But the group forged ahead, hiring a respected designer, Anthony Bracali of Friday Architects/Planners, and badgering state, city, and private funders to pay for the project.
It's ironic that the skaters, banished from LOVE Park because of conflicts, have built a park that encourages mingling, rather than a charmless concrete bowl where members of the tribe could do their skating tricks in peace. Paine's Park is not just a top-notch skate park, it is a fine public park.
As one of the first purpose-built skate parks designed by an architect, the difference in quality really shows. By necessity, a lot of concrete had to be poured on the lush 2.5-acre site, which is embedded in the berm that channels Center City-bound traffic from Martin Luther King Drive onto the Parkway.
Bracali relieves the vast white expanse of concrete, and gives the park its dynamic form, with a sweeping arc that loops from the entrance to the top of the berm. The arc is both a walking path and a skating course, and it seductively pulls you in from the Schuylkill Banks trail. As you ascend the ramps and terraces, a 360-degree panorama of skyscrapers, Art Museum, and river swirls into view.
What really distinguishes this skate park, though, are four towering white oaks Bracali preserved on the site. Not only do their luxurious canopies cast shade across the hard surface, they break the large space into cozy outdoor rooms.
Bracali doesn't segregate the skateboard course from the park's other features; he weaves them together. Granite ledges and benches double as skateboarding obstacles, and walking paths serve as skating areas. It's up to visitors to watch where they're going.
An increasing number of cities have embraced the sport by building public skate parks. But, as Joshua Nims of Franklin's Paine told me, most are designed by skateboarders, who are mainly interested in creating the right mix of walls and ledges to perform their spins.
Bracali was able to add a level of refinement rarely seen in those courses. The materials include thick slabs of granite salvaged from Dilworth Plaza before it was demolished. Concrete walls are edged with stainless-steel coping to prevent chipping. Bracali also had the entrance plaza paved in rough Belgian blocks. It signifies the entrance's importance - and stops skateboarders from accidentally careering onto the trail.
As an architect, Bracali was also interested in how the park acknowledged its place in the city. The site, once a wooded glade, is just 200 feet south of the Art Museum. He pays homage to that neoclassical temple with a series of paved brick bands that divide the site like fingers. Similar in color to the museum's Kasota stone walls, the bands line up with its famous front steps.
As I'm not a skater, I can't evaluate the quality of the course's features, which include curved "transition" walls, concrete pyramids called "flat banks," and a variety of ledges and benches. But Bracali's design clearly borrows from LOVE Park, which is celebrated in skater lore as the most perfect combination of hard surfaces and level changes.
The similarities are most pronounced in the terraced amphitheater surrounding the stage. Each step is the exact dimension of those at LOVE Park. The viewing platform, which lines up with the George Washington statue at Eakins Oval, is roughly equivalent to LOVE's top tier.
The composition, however, has been adapted to suit the park's Schuylkill Banks location.
When it was first proposed, the riverfront trail was still a rough asphalt path. Since then, it has blossomed into one of the city's most popular outdoor destinations, with close to a million users in 2012 and a string of amenities. With the palatial new dog park at Spruce Street, the mini-High Line of the connector bridge, and the gorgeously renovated gardens at the Waterworks, the trail now attracts people who live far beyond the immediate neighborhood.
Paine's Park, like the other new amenities, reflects a shifting sensibility that is becoming evident as a younger generation repopulates Philadelphia. Drawn to the sociability of city life, this demographic puts a high priority on quality public spaces and doesn't mind sharing them with diverse users.
Putting skaters and picnickers together may sound counterintuitive, but it is the successful outdoor spaces - from street plazas to bike lanes - that learn to accommodate everyone.
Changing Skyline: >Inquirer.com
To see more photos of Paine's Park, go to www.inquirer.com/skate
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.