A lazy afternoon at Rhodes Skate Park in Downtown Boise
How good is the new-and-improved Rhodes Skate Park, really?
Everyone seems to agree that a $1.3-million renovation of Downtown Boise’s urban park gave skateboarders a collection of obstacles and challenges to rival anything that exists.
Its Aug. 6 grand opening drew around 2,000 spectators and some of the nation’s top skateboarders, including Nyjah Huston, Brandon Westgate, Tom Schaar and Mark Appleyard.
Kori Schillereff, co-owner of Element skate brand, which opened a new skateboarder-catering store on Americana Boulevard just south of Rhodes Park, called it “the most amazing skate park that we have ever seen built.” Her husband and business partner, Johnny Schillereff, said it’s “probably one of the greatest skateboard parks on the planet.”
Josh Davis, a Boise Skateboard Association board member, pumped the enthusiasm brakes ever so slightly.
“It’s totally subjective. Every park is different,” Davis said. “Rhodes is really great because it’s got a little bit of everything, so I think no matter what style of skateboarding you’re kind of into or what features you’re into, everybody finds something there.”
The park’s sudden renown — and the fact it can accommodate 2,000 spectators — makes it a candidate for large-scale, high-visibility exhibitions, competitions and other events, Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
We used to have local skaters that were really extremely talented, and a lot of them would end up having to move away to really get recognized or noticed. Now we’ve got a park in our hometown where we’re going to get exposure.
DECADES OF HISTORY
Rhodes Skate Park is rooted in a conversation between Glenn Rhodes, a former commissioner of the Ada County Highway District, and his 16-year-old neighbor in the early 1990s.
After hearing Downtown business owners’ frustrations over skateboarders in front of their shops, Rhodes accompanied the teenager on a tour of popular skating spots around town. The skateboarders he talked to complained that there was nowhere for them to skate.
In 1992, Rhodes persuaded the city of Boise to dedicate nearly 1.3 acres under the I-184 Connector overpass (just open area between 15th and 16th streets) as a place for people to recreate.
Over a two-year period, Rhodes oversaw a project that turned the empty lot into a skate park. Besides raising money and coordinating more than 130 contractors, Rhodes put his own work into the concrete, fencing and framing, according to the Boise Parks and Recreation website.
Over time, Rhodes Park and the sidewalks near it became a place where homeless people hung out and, for a time, lived. It was a natural coincidence. Shelters such as Interfaith Sanctuary and Corpus Christi House are within a short walk of the park, and homeless people enjoyed the same shelter from sun, rain and snow that skaters do.
But in recent years, public irritation with the homeless camp grew, as did concern for the well-being of people staying there. In late 2014, as this controversy was gathering steam, the city of Boise announced plans for a roughly $3 million overhaul of the park and the area immediately surrounding it. A while later, the area was closed and fenced off for months.
$1 million Amount the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation donated for a state-of-the-art transformation of Rhodes Park
$300,000 Amount the city of Boise paid for the Rhodes Park overhaul
The timing rubbed some homeless advocates the wrong way. They suspected the whole reason behind the project was to drive homeless people away from the park. To this day, some still believe that.
Edgar Lockwood, a homeless man who lives at River Of Life Men’s Shelter on 13th Street, said he thinks the goal of a landscaping and public art project on the 15th and 16th Street sides is to keep homeless people, who’ve scattered since the city broke up the homeless camp in December, from staying there.
The city denies that accusation. So did Roger Quarles, executive director of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which paid for the lion’s share of the park’s upgrades.
“It’s always been about healthy, safe places to recreate,” Quarles said. “Never once did we talk about the issue of, ‘Do you want to push the homeless people around?’”
In fact, Quarles said, the foundation has for many years, perhaps decades, contributed money to a variety of groups that help the homeless and poor, including Interfaith Sanctuary, Boise Rescue Mission, Idaho Food Bank and Terry Reilly Health Services.
The newly renovated Rhodes Skate Park opened to the public in April.
Quickly, skateboarders and all other kinds of wheel enthusiasts flocked to it. They’ve already left scratches and scrapes in the concrete.
Holloway said he doesn’t mind too much.
“If we’re spending major repair and maintenance dollars on stuff, generally it means it’s getting a good use by the public,” Holloway said.
Like most parks, Holloway said, the city has no way of tracking the number of people at Rhodes Park. But there’s no doubt it’s getting more use now than before the makeover.
Holloway doesn’t expect the pace to drop off much once school starts and cold weather comes on. He expects school-age kids that use it will simply adjust their schedules. And thanks to being somewhat sheltered from the elements, the park is likely to see substantial use during the winter. Skateboarders are a dedicated bunch and will use the park all year round, said Ronnie Geaslin, manager of Boise’s Element store. Sometimes, the bushings on the boards’ trucks get so cold they don’t give, so skaters apply flames to warm them up.
The park is unique in Boise. Most city parks are dominated by green space and leisure. Rhodes Park is mostly concrete. Instead of relaxing, skaters push boundaries. Bruises and exhaustion are more common than refreshment.
If clashes between homeless people and skaters occur, they’re rare. The number of homeless people hanging around the park has decreased as the number of people skating in the park has increased. Tom Gilmore, who said he’s been homeless in Boise for more than a year, said very few people try to spend the night on the street or in the park, because patrolling police officers ticket them.
At the end of the day, it's a public facility.
Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway on the presence of homeless people near Rhodes Skate Park
In the past couple of months, officers have written four tickets in the Rhodes Park area for violating a city law that bans camping in a public place, Boise Police spokeswoman Haley Williams said in an email.
So far, the people using Rhodes Park have been following the rules, Holloway said. That means discouraging fellow skaters from smoking, drinking alcohol, swearing, out-of-control skating and generally “just not being a good neighbor inside the park.”
“Now, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t issues,” Holloway said. “Just like in any environment, you’re going to have some that don’t pay attention to the rules or don’t abide by those, and certainly some of that is occurring. But I think, again, in that culture of skateboarding, they’re much better than in maybe many other types of cultures you would see in a park. Because they want to protect what they have.”
Other than police patrols, Rhodes Park doesn’t have a security presence, Holloway said.
“I don't think there’s any question that if you didn't have a place for them to go to skate at, they're going to go skate somewhere,” he said. “They're going to be using benches. They're going to be using planters. But now they have a controlled environment ... that they can use that pushes them not only to a place to skate, but a world-class place to skate, which makes a huge difference.”
From a certain perspective, Rhodes Park seems an odd choice for the Albertson Foundation to support.
The foundation traditionally focuses on educational initiatives. But the Rhodes Park contribution, as well as more than $5 million contributed to the city’s whitewater park on the Boise River, Quarles said, “aligned perfectly” with the foundation’s mission statement: “Discover, develop and expand environments of limitless learning.”
“We believe that learning can occur everywhere and anywhere,” Quarles said. “If you ever look at grit and persistence and turning challenges into opportunities, you’ll see that the skateboarding community lives it every day.”
Holloway believes Rhodes Park will bring new life to the surrounding area, similar to the way Esther Simplot Park, under construction west of Whitewater Park Boulevard, has rejuvenated the West End — even before opening.
He thinks Element is just the beginning of a wave of economic development.
Davis, as a skateboarding advocate, sees Rhodes Park as ground zero for a revolution of Boise’s skateboarding scene. The park puts Boise on skateboarders’ maps, he said. In fact, skate parks are popping up in cities like Kuna, Jerome, Gooding and Middleton, as well as Missoula, Great Falls, Big Sandy and a bunch of other Montana cities.
Skateboarders are noticing, Davis said.
“They see one park and they want to go skate another,” he said. “People are already traveling through and making these road trips, and Idaho used to get kind of skipped. ... And now Idaho and Montana both have all these amazing skate parks. With Rhodes, it’s the centerpiece.”
Art and recreation destination
The next phase of renovation near Rhodes Park is a revamp of the areas under the bridges where the I-184 Connector crosses 15th and 16th streets. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation is contributing $250,000 to this project. The city of Boise is paying roughly $1 million for the remainder, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
The entire undertaking on the 15th and 16th Street sides will feature $324,000 worth of public art. Displays will bee interwoven with landscaping and will include murals by local artists Sector Seventeen and Stephanie Inman, artistic fencing and a sequence of letters measuring as high as 11 feet that spell “RHODES” and light up at night, Holloway said.
Much of the art and landscaping will be designed to hold up under a variety of stresses, including skateboarding.
“Our goal is to create an environment that not only the skaters, but the public in general, can enjoy,” Holloway said.
The 15th Street side will also have a parkour course, he said. Parkour is a physical training activity similar to freerunning in that people doing it climb, jump and otherwise conquer obstacles instead of going around them.