‘Skateboarding has changed’: Petaluma skaters welcome adult allies in fight for second park
In late March, Mary Beth Leland found herself at the Petaluma Skate Park, an expanse of undulating concrete near the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds off of East Washington Street.
Leland, 47, wasn’t there to skate. She’s not sure she’s ever stepped one wobbly foot on a skateboard. She was there for the skaters, and she noticed most of them weren’t using the park either.
They were in the parking lot, pushed out by kiddos on bikes and scooters and their doting parents – each drawn to the park amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The skaters, Leland said in an email to city leaders this spring, were happy to explain their side of things to an adult who would listen and they were “filled with ideas to resolve the conflict.” Without resolution, though, Leland simply sees heartbreak.
“Their demographic is often on the fringes of mainstream culture, and this was a place they could congregate and do something healthy, social and in public without being shunned, in the way, reported to the police, etc. But now it’s gone,” she said in the email.
Leland is part of a group of at least a dozen Petaluma residents who would like to see that changed. The adults, many of whom have no connection to skateboarding, represent the latest push in a years-long effort to bring a second skate park to Sonoma County’s second-largest city.
Leland and company formed the Facebook page Petaluma Parks Budget Action Group with the goal of forcing the city’s parks department to plan seriously for the future of parks and recreation, and to ensure that planning is equitable across demographic and cultural groups. They don’t see that happening today.
The group has ready allies at City Hall, too, including Petaluma Vice Mayor Brian Barnacle, the council liaison to the city’s parks commission, and council member D’Lynda Fischer.
“It is about a skate park, but it’s about a skate park in the lens of all of our parks and recreation,” Fischer said, explaining the central conflict. “Who are we serving? Where are the gaps?”
Drew Halter, deputy director for Petaluma’s Parks and Recreation Department, said the push for a second skate park really took off in fall of 2019, during outreach efforts related to the countywide Measure M funding measure.
Advocates and officials say skaters showed up en masse. Despite those efforts yielding no quick action, Halter said parks officials received the message loud and clear.
“I think the redesign of the current skate park — whatever that looks like — that is a priority of city staff, city officials and supported through the outreach efforts we did,” Halter said.
Although he said he wasn’t sure whether a study would point to a second park or a redesign of the current facility, Halter said any effort to bolster the city’s offerings for skateboarders and others who use skate parks could move rather quickly once funding is secured.
“The energy we got behind it, the comments we received from the skate park community indicates they really care, and want to see it improved,” Halter said. “And we’re all in support of letting that process play out.”
Fischer said she plans to work with Barnacle to develop a plan for studying the city’s approach to parks and recreation, and she’s eyeing a request for $65,000 to hire a facilitator to guide the development of a parks master plan.
She said it could be done in six to nine months, and Barnacle, for his part, seems to be on board with the idea.
“We really need to take a step back and think about the entirety of what our parks could be, and set our priorities with a full understanding of the bigger picture of where we want to go,” Barnacle said.
Both Barnacle and Fischer said there’s enough evidence of need now to move forward with building a skate park immediately. But it’s not yet clear whether parks officials or other city leaders consider a second skate park a priority.
Still, with newfound adult allies, skaters see potential in what has previously been a series of failed efforts, including a guerilla DIY park along the river that lasted four years before being torn down.
But it could take some time. It took 13 years for the current skate park to be built after the initial push, including at least four years of planning, meaning current young skaters likely won’t soon see progress.
Petaluma’s skate park finally opened May 31, 1997. Situated on what used to be 50 Sonoma-Marin Fair-adjacent parking spots, and built for $100,000, the 14,000-square-foot park features a couple of rails, a bowl and some small hills, but zero shade, no water and nowhere to sit.
“It’s not a great place to hang out; it’s in a weird location,” said Aiden Sharkey, 14. “I don’t find myself having a good vibe there.”