Editor's Note: This story was modified at 9 p.m. on Wednesday evening to include new information.
Santa Barbara Parks officials have opted to beat a strategic retreat in their no-win battle with defiant skateboarders, announcing that the waterfront skate park — which was shut down for alleged hooliganism Monday afternoon — would be reopened on July 4. When the park closure was first announced, the plan was to keep the waterfront skate park closed until Friday, July 5.
“In all honesty, I don’t think we had the resources to keep the park closed,” conceded city parks czar Nancy Rapp. “Every time we put up barriers, the minute staff left the site, they [the skateboarders] would take them down.” On Tuesday night, for example, young skaters used bolt cutters to snip the thick chains installed by Parks and Recreation employees and laid over the park surface in a crisscross pattern to make skating all but impossible. Rapp said as many as 50 skaters then occupied the skate facility — shut down the day before for rowdy, threatening behavior — and began skating. The police, she said, were called. Before that, efforts to block off the park by installing wooden barricades to the entrance were challenged when young skaters smashed the barricades and yanked down the “No Skating” signs.
Rapp added that with tens of thousands of people thronging to the beach for the Fourth of July, the last thing City Hall needed was an unresolved on-again-off-again skirmish taking place at the skate park. Police resources are typically tied up on other matters, and in the event of a gang altercation — a sometime occurrence during Fourth of July festivities — the distraction could prove problematic. In the meantime, she said, more rangers and police officers would be dispatched to the area in hopes of keeping the peace. She also said that prominent personalities involved in the local and national skateboard scene — some of whom helped get the park started 12 years ago — have pledged to reach out to skaters to help calm the otherwise turbulent waters.
According to Rapp, problems started Sunday when skaters began throwing water balloons at patrons and artists at the regular Sunday art show adjacent to the park. In addition, water balloons were reportedly lobbed at traffic going by on Cabrillo Boulevard. A city park worker who sought to restore order was pelted with water balloons multiple times and was later encircled by a handful of skaters when he sought to empty the park. One of them rushed him only to jump off his board at the last moment when the parks worker put his hands up in a defensive manner. Police were called Sunday night — and multiple times since — and by Monday noon, the decision was made to shut down the heavily used park at least through the Fourth of July, when large crowds congregate nearby. “It's one thing to throw water balloons,” said Rapp. “This is not the first time water balloons have been thrown. But this definitely crossed a line, and we needed to send a message.” She added, “What I found galling was the total lack of respect shown city staff, rangers, and police.” The park was open Wednesday for a regularly scheduled skate camp but closed down immediately after.
City officials no longer monitor the park to ensure that helmet and pads rules are enforced, and Skater's Point operates as a drop-in facility. In the past, park monitors were routinely ignored, derided, and were all but impossible to keep on payroll. For the most part, Rapp said, the park operates well, providing a much-needed spot for skaters. “It’s a very, very popular park,” Rapp said. “It gets lots of use.”
Some skaters — and their supporters — are concerned City Hall might be responding excessively to the provocation. Throwing water balloons on a hot summer day is hardly the end of the world — nor all that new — they say, and skaters should not necessarily be blamed for the behavior of people who happen to be hanging around the park. As for allegations of drug sales, they say, the same could be said for almost any park in the city. With large crowds and intense demand, they say, some form of City Hall presence — however feckless and futile it might seem — serves a useful function.
Relations between experienced and less experienced skaters can get bumpy from time to time, and skaters are known to get rowdy. Over the years, Rapp said, she's had to close the park before to restore order. This time, she said, there were several separate groups of individuals involved in problematic behavior — balloon throwing, intimidating skating, and reportedly drug slinging — and they all were egging each other on.
The events of the last few days, said Rapp, would trigger a new round of discussions about the skate park. “The problems aren’t new at all. We have kids who act out from time to time,” she said. “It’s a dilemma. I’m not saying there are solutions that are anything other than costly.” She said the park could be reconfigured so that the entrances and exits are more controllable; city staff could be stationed there full time. “But is that what we want? And do we have the resources?” she asked.
Despite the immediate difficulties, Rapp expressed pride in the success of the park, noting that most cities have located their skate parks in their industrial hinterlands. By contrast, Rapp said, Santa Barbara chose to locate its park “right in our front yard.”