by Paul Bowers
A long-delayed plan to build a public skatepark in the Neck has reached a major benchmark: The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission finally owns the land where it intends to build the park, and additional money has been allocated to fund the extensive work needed to prepare the property.
For anyone who has followed the regulatory obstacles and land snafus that have delayed the park's construction for years, this is big news. Park & Rec initially approved funding for the project in March 2010, and now a Park & Rec spokesperson says the remaining design, permitting, and construction could take about 16 months — putting the completion date around April 2016.
Shannon Smith, founder of local advocacy group Pour It Now, has been pushing government officials to fund and build a park for more than a decade, and now she says she's confident the park will be open soon.
"It's just taking an incredibly long time for all of us that would like to skate before we're in wheelchairs," Smith says.
Back in March 2010, Park & Rec approved a budget of $2 million for the project, to be funded entirely by county park revenues and not tax dollars. Park & Rec originally intended to build a park on 40,000 square feet of city-owned land under highway overpasses near the intersection of Meeting and Huger streets. But the S.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, who have jurisdiction over the land under the overpasses, demanded a battery of safety and environmental studies that raised the cost estimate by $1.8 million and ate up at least $50,000 of the budget before Park & Rec gave up and scrapped its plans for the site.
In September 2013, Park & Rec approved an additional $850,000 from its Capital Improvement Projects budget to purchase land at 1593 Oceanic St., a site bordering wetlands and a city-built bridge to nowhere in the post-industrial Neck area at the northern end of the peninsula. The new site contains about 205,000 square feet of usable dry land, nearly five times the size of the original site. But the new site proved problematic as well.
Park & Rec officials originally planned to begin construction on Oceanic Street in early 2014, but in April 2014, Executive Director Tom O'Rourke said they had hit a few snags. For one thing, the land was tied up in an heirs' property dispute; its owner, Ashley II of Charleston LLC, was a defendant in at least two lawsuits involving the property. Initial studies also showed problems with the land itself: Waste concrete was buried underground and would possibly have to be removed or covered with fill dirt before construction could begin. The boundaries of the land along the waterline had also shifted from where they were drawn in county records.
Finally, on Sept. 24, the land deal went through. County records show that Park & Rec purchased the property for $800,000. Park & Rec has also gotten a funding bump: According to O'Rourke, the City of Charleston has pitched in $928,000 for the construction budget, with about half of the money coming from the nonprofit Speedwell Foundation and half coming from an existing Tax Increment Financing District that includes the Oceanic Street property.
In the spring of 2014, O'Rourke estimated that the park would be open in January 2015, but now Park & Rec officials are saying that they won't even hold public design meetings for the park until early spring 2015. According to an estimate from a Park & Rec spokesperson, finalization of design and construction documents should take about five months, followed by two months of permitting, followed by nine months of construction. Soil mitigation will be done during the design and permitting phases.
Pour It Now started pushing for the construction of a public skatepark over 10 years ago, when Smith's daughter Audrey was a baby. Now, she says, Audrey is skating and has learned how to drop into an emptied-out swimming pool in their backyard, and the family travels to other towns so she can use their skateparks.
"She has no peers. She has no girls to skate with here because there's not really a conducive area to teach them," Smith says.
Smith holds out high hopes for the long-gestating park, which the county is now referring to as SK8 Charleston. Renowned skatepark designers Team Pain are still on board to draw up plans for the new site, and Smith looks forward to the day when Audrey can practice in a proper park in her own town. She says that once the park is up and running, Pour It Now will raise funds to pay for entry fees and new equipment for children from underprivileged families who want to skate.
"All the older skaters will always give their old equipment up, but we want to have a bunch of new setups and get them out to kids who really want to do this," Smith says.