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Freedom Plaza skateboarders worry their favorite spot is in jeopardy

Elijah Odom of Miami tries a backside nose grind at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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On a recent afternoon at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, hip-hop provided the soundtrack as skateboarders hurtled across the marbled expanse, practiced leaps and landings, and impressed onlookers with gravity-bending tricks. They also wiped out a lot.

For many in the region, the plaza three blocks from the White House is an unimpressive slab that plays host to occasional festivals and protests. But for local skaters, it’s a canvas for crafting and displaying their art.

Now they’re worried that canvas may be forever altered. Or taken away.

The National Capital Planning Commission released public proposals last month for a comprehensive redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue and potentially Freedom Plaza. Many of the skaters, who have mobilized online in recent weeks to make their voices heard, are concerned the new vision won’t include a place for them.

“The few skate parks here are pretty small,” said Andrew Pribulka, 33, who began skating at Freedom Plaza when he was 13 and took the Metro into the city to learn from other skateboarders. “It would be heartbreaking to lose this space, and I’m worried that our feedback might get lost.”

Skater Donovan Stubbs, 26, practices tricks at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, D.C. He visits the plaza at least two or three times a week. (Video: Joe Heim/The Washington Post)

It’s happening in other cities, note Freedom Plaza regulars, some of whom can rattle off a list of other shuttered popular skate spots: Love Park in Philadelphia, Eastland Skate Park in Charlotte, Rush Skatepark in England. Skaters rallied to save Tompkins Square Park in New York, said Darnell Miller, who has been skating for 17 years and goes through a new board every month.

“Who is the National Capital Planning Commission appealing to? Their plans sound vague right now,” Miller said. “Change isn’t necessarily bad, but they should first appease the people who live here, not newcomers.”

Since the 1980s, generations of skateboarders have traveled to the plaza at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to connect with other skaters, pull off tricks, and record videos to mark their spot in skateboard lore. The open marble surface of Freedom Plaza, with its stairs, railings, benches and spectacular view of the Capitol, have made it a prized destination for skaters from the region and around the world.

A few years ago, Thrasher, the legendary skateboard magazine, produced a video about the plaza, also known to local skaters as Pulaski Park because of the nearby statue of Casimir Pulaski, a Pole who aided America in the Revolution. The video, which captures exploits of local and national skating stalwarts, has more than 200,000 views.

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Of course, Freedom Plaza, dedicated in 1980, wasn’t created to be a skate park. And skateboarding is actually illegal at the National Park Service site, though skaters say that for the most part in recent years, the police have left them alone.

The treeless expanse, originally named Western Plaza and renamed Freedom Plaza in 1988 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., is etched with a portion of the street plan for Washington drawn up by Pierre L’Enfant. It is ideal for skateboarding and some civic events, but is often otherwise ignored.

As far back as the 1990s, the city has grappled with keeping skateboarders out and figuring out jurisdiction. In 1991, the D.C. Council passed a measure, spearheaded by member Harry Thomas Sr., that outlawed skateboarding in Freedom Plaza and allowed police to confiscate skateboards.

The city also erected signs warning skaters to stay away from government property. The D.C. police enforce the law in Freedom Plaza, but the National Park Service is responsible for maintenance of the site.

For several years, the National Capital Planning Commission has been studying Pennsylvania Avenue and thinking about ways to make it more accessible and welcoming for a greater variety of users, said Elizabeth Miller, its director of physical planning.

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Miller said that because Freedom Plaza sits above street level and is an open area with little shade, it has become separated from the surrounding streets and businesses. Pedestrians choose to walk around, rather than through, the space.

Last month, the National Capital Planning Commission unveiled three different visions for revitalizing and rethinking more than one mile along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.

The effort, planners say, could lead to fewer car lanes, more parkland and a thriving downtown thoroughfare that appeals to pedestrians and cyclists, tourists and locals. One potential change to the plaza would be to bring it down to street level.

Miller emphasized that the three proposals are still in the early stages and said the commission is aware of the concerns from the skateboarders and plans to meet with them. “The question is,” she said, “how can we find a balance? How can we make this work for everyone?”

More than 10,000 people have so far signed an online petition to preserve the plaza that was launched by Brian Aguilar, a native of Silver Spring and the owner of Crushed Skate Shop on U Street in Northwest Washington.

“I know how important Freedom Plaza is not just to D.C. but to the world,” said Aguilar, who was astounded by the response. “Every time I’m there, it’s always memorable. It’s almost like a reunion, seeing people I haven’t seen in years.”

Aguilar said he hopes his effort, first reported by WAMU, will help convince the National Capital Planning Commission that skateboarders have much to add to the community. “There’s so much room for growth in a positive and healthy way, and this could be one of those opportunities,” Aguilar said.

Donovan Stubbs, 26, said he visits Freedom Plaza at least twice a week. “People need to get the connection we have to this place,” he said. “If they let us have our own space, they’ll see that we’re adding to the city.”

While he doesn’t see the District as the most skater-friendly city, Stubbs views Freedom Plaza as a melting pot of tourists, area workers and, of course, skateboarders.

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“It’s a prime spot to be in and one of the last surviving plazas on the East Coast,” Stubbs said last week during a break from practicing tricks. “When we’re here, it’s like we get to put on a show for people passing by. Who wouldn’t want to be here?”

His girlfriend, Tamara Fraser, said that the skaters look out for one another and that younger skaters look to older skaters for guidance. “The people who want to change the plaza don’t see the importance for skateboarders and how they add to the community,” she said.

Sitting on the side of the plaza on a recent afternoon, Gregory Russell Jr., who also goes by “The Skate God,” rested his feet on his board and watched another skateboarder barrel toward the White Wall, a spot he considers the most difficult obstacle in Freedom Plaza.

“You need a lot of energy to conquer the White Wall because of how it’s designed,” said Russell, 29. “I don’t think any designer can recreate this perfect surface.”

The skateboarder jumped, wheels gliding across the White Wall, and landed without a problem. The Skate God clapped. “Skateboarding is very important and is a huge lifesaver,” he said, “They should listen to the people that care about this the most.”