The Powhatan Springs skate park in Arlington won't be open for at least another week, but that has not stopped enthusiasts from crowding the fence line and begging county construction manager Jeffrey Marlow for a chance to try their skateboards on the newly built rails and bowls.
Skaters have been eagerly eyeing the site since last year, when construction on the county's first skate park began.
"I'll be here late at night and no less than 15 groups of kids will come look at it oohing and ahhing," said Marlow, 46, who has a particular affinity for the project, being an avid skateboarder. "They're in a zone all their own."
And soon they'll have a space all their own. Arlington's park is just the latest in a series of skate facilities to be built throughout the region. The parks are emerging as a way to satisfy the demands of skaters, who have long complained that they didn't have anywhere to ride, and to get skaters off public plazas and streets, where the pastime is considered both a nuisance and a hazard.
Skateboarders have been a particular headache for merchants near Alexandria's Market Square plaza, where skaters like to congregate to practice their moves. In response to the demand, Alexandria opened its own skate park last year. In June, the City Council renamed the park, at Luckett Field on Duke Street near Quaker Lane, after avid skateboarder and T.C. Williams student Schuyler H. Jones. Jones, 16, was beaten to death last September by three youths in Market Square.
Boasting legions of devoted enthusiasts nationwide, skateboarding has emerged from the fringes over the last decade to become one of the most popular recreational activities. Today, there are approximately 1,000 skate parks across the nation, five times more than there were in 1996, according to the Skatepark Association of the United States of America, which describes skating -- which includes skateboarding and inline skating -- as a $3 billion annual industry.
Arlington's skate park could open as early as Aug. 28. Construction on the park's concrete features -- halfpipes, a 12-foot-deep bowl rimmed with bumpy pool "coping" to enhance the ride, a volcano-like structure and challenging "picnic table" -- are highly-anticipated by the area skateboarding enthusiasts who have few places to find a good, legal ride.
Skaters have developed somewhat of an outlaw image, industry experts say, and are driven to skate in empty pools and fountains -- sometimes damaging granite plazas as they grind their boards across the terrain -- because they have no structured environment to test their skills.
Without a place where they can skate, "you're teaching kids to be criminals," Marlow said. "You have to give them a place because they are going to skate. They're going to find places that you never imagined. This is money well spent."
The Arlington park, which includes an interactive garden for children and a youth-sized athletic field for soccer and lacrosse, cost about $2.2 million, Marlow said.
Located on Wilson Boulevard at the edge of Arlington between North Livingston and North Liberty streets, the park occupies 5.34 acres of what was once residential land. Just like Alexandria's park, Arlington's is accessible by bus but is still several miles from the county's epicenter. The park will charge admission for supervised use to help cover the salary of the park manager and maintenance. The park will also have a concession stand and an office where police can be present from time to time.
The tentative fee schedule will be $4 for residents and $6 for nonresidents. A residential yearly pass will be $50, and a 10-visit pass will be $25. Although it is still unfinished and closed to the public, visitors can get an unobstructed view of the skating terrain. There are stairs, ledges, benches and railings. Add a few pedestrians, a couple eating lunch, some squirrels and a bit of grass, and it's a public plaza. Somehow, "skate park" seems like the wrong description. It's more like a movie set for skateboarders and inline skaters. BMX bikers will also be welcome during certain hours, officials say.
"It's plaza skating," Marlow insists. "That's the key here."
That's good news for merchants who are tired of battling with boarders for sidewalk and plaza space. A "no skateboarding" sign in Old Town Alexandria is subject to frequent repainting by vandals who like to black out the "no." Management at Pat Troy's Restaurant and Pub in Old Town has struggled with skateboarders for years.
"We had a rough time," manager Paul McLaughlin said. "At least once a day, we'd have to say, 'You can't be around here.' Police were patrolling."
Things have improved since the park opened, McLaughlin said. "The kids are going to use the park more and obeying the city ordinance signs."
Maybe. And maybe not.
Skateboarder Jonathan Freeman, 16, was an active lobbyist in support of Alexandria's skate park. Overall, he says the final product is good. But Freeman said skaters will never completely abandon the plazas and streets.
"A big aspect of street skateboarding is finding the spots that are good and innovative and using them," Freeman said. "Still, the park is definitely a new asset for skateboarders." Alexandria's skate park is free and open for unsupervised, skate-at-your-own-risk use. At 12,000 square feet, the park is about the size of two tennis courts. Like most skate parks, Alexandria's facility requires users to wear helmets, and officials make spot-checks to enforce the rule.
The park was designed largely by its young users, who packed city planning meetings. The park cost the city about $350,000; about $50,000 was raised by a local skate group, officials said. The fundraising effort continues for an anticipated expansion of the facility to add more advanced features.
Attendance is high already.
"It's unbelievable," said Kirk Kincannon, director of the city's Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. "It's by far one of the busiest facilities used daily in the city" among that age group. "On a weekday in the summer, we easily get 20 to 30 kids an hour. It's near capacity on weekends."