Thursday, April 3, 2008

Skaters Caught Between City, OUSD

Seventeen-year-old Dylan Lightfoot executes a front side board slide Thursday while fellow skaters Michael Welker, Jay Brosies (partially obscured), Alec Stallings, John Saunders and Jesse Marcus watch.

By Nao Braverman
Members of Skate Ojai have been waiting to get started on building a permanent, in-ground skateboard park on school district property for years. In 2003, preliminary designs for a concrete park had just been drafted, when the entire project was delayed by the city’s budget crisis.
Now that the city’s budget is nearly intact, it looks like the Ojai Unified School District’s fiscal woes might be getting in the way of Skate Ojai’s plans.
A recent proposal to the City Council, by Citizens for a New Vision for Ojai, which mentioned a suggestion to move the skate park plans elsewhere and put the proposed performing arts theater there instead, prompted some skate park supporters to question question the security of the park’s expected location on school district property.
Joan Kemper, founder of the Ojai Performing Arts Theater project, later clarified that the proposal to move the skate park had been suggested to her after she heard that the school district did not want to extend their lease to the skate park. It was just a suggestion and nothing more, she said. Although she was not even certain that the theater should be built in that location, if it were, she would be happy to have the skate park also there, as a neighbor. Kemper added that the Citizens for a New Vision were unanimously in support of the skate park project, although some members thought it would be better in a different location. She also said that if the community members wanted the Performing Arts Theater at the Chaparral School location, Ojai Performing Arts Theater might consider purchasing the property from the school district. However, if they did, they would be happy to save the portion where the skate park is located, so it could stay where it is.
The school district-owned parking lot by the bus stop in downtown Ojai, informally known as Park & Ride, was leased to the city long before the skate park was ever built.
But with the construction of the skate park, an amendment was added to the lease, ostensibly securing the skateboard park at its present location until Dec. 31, 2023.
The lease is with the city, not Skate Ojai, however, council members have publicly agreed to keep the property slated for the existing temporary skate park, and later a permanent skate park, if sufficient funds to build the facility are raised in time.
But school district budget cuts, due to statewide economic woes, and coupled by declining enrollment, have forced school district administrators and board members to focus on ways to increase their depleted budget. School district superintendent Tim Baird said that leasing the school district property at Park & Ride to another business or organization, could help the district obtain some additional, and much-needed, revenue.
“If we were having no financial difficulties at this time it would be different,” said Baird. “But we are going to have to get really creative to bring in dollars for our schools. We don’t have many assets and that property downtown is one of them. You certainly devalue a property if you put if you put something permanent there.”
Wendy Hilgers, a member of Skate Ojai, said that were the school district interested in leasing the Ojai Avenue property to founders of the proposed Ojai Performing Arts Theater, there would be no reason that the theater could not coexist with the skate park.
But Baird said he was not particularly interested in reserving the lot for the performing arts theater or anything specific at this time.
“Many people have come forth with concepts, and we are certainly open to talking with people, but no one yet has come up with a financial plan.”
Currently the city pays the school district $252 per parking space for approximately 71 spaces in the parking lot. While there are only 49 spaces currently, the additional 22 spaces replaced by the skate park, still cost the city the price of 22 spaces. The city paid a total rent of $17,892 for the entire the parking lot during the 2007 fiscal year, $5,544, just for the skate park. That number goes up each year with the cost of living increase, said city finance director Suzie Mears.
But even if the land under skate park is being paid for at this time, when the lease expires at the end of 2023, there may be other businesses that would want to rent or purchase the entire property owned by the school district at that location, including the skate park property explained school board member Rikki Horne. A lease agreement for a larger portion of school district property would, of course, be more lucrative.
“I am all for the skateboard park. But if I think about the money that we have and the jobs we are losing, I am not willing to tie up our valuable asset for longer than it already is,” said Horne. “It is not my function to say where the skateboard park should be. But if it were me, I would not build a permanent skateboard park on leased land.”
Neither Horne nor Baird spoke of any intent to break the nearly 16-year lease that the city has with the school district for the skate park property, however, neither were in favor of having a concrete park built there.
“I would have serious concerns about putting a permanent facility in that location with an impermanent lease,” said Baird. He suggested that a better location might be in a park rather than a parking lot.
In a letter to Jere Kersnar several moths ago, Baird also asked that Skate Ojai raise an additional $100,000 for the demolition and removal of the skate park after their lease has expired.
At a recent City Council meeting, the council agreed that they were eager to get started on the long-awaited project and encouraged members of Skate Ojai to begin raising funds and drafting preliminary plans for a skate park on the school district property. They hoped that in 15 years the lease might be renewed indefinitely, but if not, it would at least have a good 15-year life. That decision has been questioned by Baird and some members of the school board who are now reluctant to have concrete poured on school district property.
Baird said that, as he understood it, the 15-year lease with the city was always for the parking lot with temporary amendments for a temporary skate park. It was short term and temporary while they looked for a permanent location, he said.
But former Recreation Department director Carol Belser said that amendments to the city’s lease had always included a permanent, concrete park in its present location.
In 2003, the school board approved an amendment to their lease agreement with the city, which included the existing skateboard park as well as an expanded park.
Belser said that the expanded park was always intended to be a permanent in-ground park.
“We had never even heard of such a thing as a modular park,” she said.
The first park was a pilot park, a test run, because the community and school district had some concerns. But after it passed the nine-month trial, the effort was always to get a permanent park in that location, she said.
When the lease amendment was approved in 2003, Belser handed school board members copies of designs for a permanent park which had already been drafted. Even a conceptual design had been approved by the Planning Commission, she said.
The amended lease agreement includes an expansion of the park, including the community garden, maintained by Help of Ojai.
Karen Kaminsky, outreach advocate for Help of Ojai who also coordinates the garden volunteers, said she had always understood that part of the garden would be relinquished in the future to make room for the skate park expansion. The garden, which is used to feed seniors who are served by Meals on Wheels, would be reduced by 60 percent. But with only six core volunteers, a smaller garden would be easier to maintain, she said.
Most of the council members say they are still in favor of having the skate park refurbished at its present location, to exist for the next 15 years, as was decided at the last council discussion on the topic.
Mayor Sue Horgan said that the length of the lease is not as much of a concern as finances. If the total costs are not raised by the June 30 target date, a modular park will have to be built, she said.
But Hilgers said she was confident that the money could be raised for a concrete park, that the organization was ready to build it under their more-than-15-year lease agreement, and that Skate Ojai was not interested in building anything modular.
Dean Vadnais agreed that the lease with the school board would be sufficient, and that if and when all things fall into place, Skate Ojai will receive their pledged donation.
Hilgers said the current location had always been the preferred location for a permanent concrete park, according to members of Skate Ojai.
Former Mayor David Bury, an informal and unpaid architectural consultant of the Performing Arts Theater project, said that the decision was the school board’s to make.
“Ultimately we need to defer to them regarding the property,” he said.


Anonymous said...

Dean Vadnais is quoted in the article, but his role in this process isn't clear.

Anonymous said...

Statements from the current recreation director in charge of the skate park would be more important than the recollection of a former employee. Its time to get the City, OUSD and Sk8 Ojai together.