You either spent your childhood there or occasionally pass it on Mendenhall Loop Road, there is no in-between for the Pipeline Skate Park — Juneau’s sole skate park. It may seem like a standard skate spot, but the story of this hard-won park starts with a group of teens in the mid-’90s and carves through decades of remodels, challenges, and fundraisers, as well as generations of stewardship. Now, the Pipeline may be fast approaching a new era.
The news is best delivered by Michele Elfers, Deputy Director at City and Borough of Juneau’s Parks and Recreation department. “The assembly recently appropriated $75,000 to do a Planning and Outreach study for that area, including the skate park, to really understand what the community would like to see there,” she says. “Or how we could improve the skate park.”
The Pipeline is housed in the 4.57-acre Jackie Renninger Park, which includes the parking lot, bathrooms and a chunk of forested land behind the covered, year-round skate park. The Parks & Recreation Master Plan 2019-2029, which includes survey data from households that used each Parks and Recreation facility, notes that 12% of Juneau households, including 20% residences with kids, reported using the Pipeline. Households that did recreate at the park reported an average of 22.7 visits per year.
But Elfers says when you look at population versus access to park facilities, this area of the Mendenhall Valley is the most underserved in town for park facilities.
“We really focused in on that area of town and this piece of parkland as being really important to serve the community,” says Elfers, “I hope that sometime this summer or fall we’ll start with some type of survey out to the community asking about that specific facility and the park, and then move on to a public process.”
Elfers can speak to the future, but some Parks and Recreation employees can take us back to the beginning — like Kristi West.
“This would have been in the mid-’90s,” West says while guiding a walk-through of the Pipeline, pointing out signs, additions, renditions and artwork. “It offered an open venue for skaters to come anytime that they want, to build a community by building this park.”
She means that literally. The skaters built the park.
Though the Pipeline has always been under Parks and Recreation, the concept originated with some Juneau teenagers in the summer of 1996. Long story short, they got kicked out of downtown and needed a place to skate — legally.
Chauncey Sorenson, now a competitive snowboarder among other things, was part of that original group. Downtown was the place to skate. It has cement, stair sets, and a “decent amount of terrain that was skateable.” But it also had the police department, in those days, right next to Red Dog Saloon — just across the street from popular skate spot Marine Park.
“We were literally doing illegal things right in front of the cops,” Sorenson says. Consequences ranged from stern words to tickets and unfriendly interactions.
Eventually, Sorenson, Charles “Chuck” Clasby, and others started thinking about a skate park. “We talked about it with some of our teachers. And they’re like, ‘Oh, that’d be a really cool project,’” Sorenson says. The group started gathering information, making phone calls, and eventually, wound up at the parks department.
“There’s a group of kids who came into [then Parks and Recreation Director Therese Smith’s] office and said, ‘You need to build us a skateboard park,” says former employee James King, who’s now with the Forest Service. “As a director, she was super creative and she says, ‘Well, I don’t have any money. I don’t have any ability to really do that. But I think it’s a good idea.’”
Therese Smith offered city land for the park on one condition — the group had to raise the funds for the facility construction themselves, prompting the Juneau-Douglas High School Phoenix Program. That might seem like a lot for teenagers, but Sorenson recalls the experience as being an “absolutely amazing” one.
“Really, because we had support from our teachers and other adults around us,” he says. “Which, typically with skating, is not something that we ever saw as kids.”
One form of support came from, again, Therese Smith. She worked with JDHS staff to develop a credited class at the school covering civics, building design and fundraising. It was called Skating, Science, and Civics.
For more than a year, the teenagers learned park design, presented on their project, worked with multiple Juneau agencies and businesses, found a suitable site for the park, obtained conditional use permits, raised funds, received grants from Seven Circles Coalition and other entities, faced a legal challenge from a soon-to-be neighbor and broke ground in September 1997.
The Pipeline skate park was opened on Dec. 31, 1997, at a total cost of $585,273.
The New Year’s Eve dedication ceremony had speeches, a roasted pig, a lively crowd, and plenty of testing out the new merchandise — aka skateboard demonstrations. One young skater was there — William “Sonny” Pittman.
“I remember they cooked a pig, but I skated too long, and it was all eaten by the time I came back,” says Pittman, now in accounting with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Settled for a hot dog.”
Pittman grew up without a skate park in Juneau. Sometimes skaters would set up a temporary DIY park at Glacier Valley Elementary School. But kids would mostly opt for street skating at the library parking lot, office buildings, schools, or whatever covered area they could find.
“Being in a temperate rainforest, there wasn’t a lot of good spots to skate,” he says.
The new covered skate park, then, was a game-changer.
“Some of my happiest memories of my youth are there,” Pittman says. In the years to follow, he put in some serious time at the Pipeline — as a skater, an employee and a volunteer.
Kristi West set up Pittman with a paid gig to run Sonny’s Snack Shack. His duties were simple: Sell kids Gatorade and candy, maybe a microwaved Hot Pocket from a freezer stored under a ramp, while looking after the park. Make sure no one smokes inside the wooden facility, offer helmets, direct kids toward the payphones in emergencies. Stuff like that.
Later, Pittman’s role evolved to joining the “Skate Board” — an informal council of skaters that included Jordan Kendall and others who help manage the Pipeline with Parks and Recreation. Pittman is part of park remodeling, programming and general oversight to this day.
“I credit skateboarding to giving me everything I have,” he says. “So we wanted to be involved so the next generation can have those things, too.”
Parks and Landscape supervisor Colby Shibler and his crews are in charge of keeping the skate park open and clean (as well as keeping an eye on the infamous public restrooms and an eye out for offensive graffiti). The park is not fully enclosed, so it can remain unsupervised and somewhat exposed to the elements. Enclosing it, adding climate control, would mean a Parks and Recreation employee or someone similar would have to be onsite.
Still, Shibler confirms the Skate Board is still heavily engaged.
“[Pittman] and a bunch of other skaters have been the big drivers on anything that has happened there,” he says. “Any kind of remodels done to the actual skate features, that’s all done through skaters.”
However, Shibler, Pittman, and many others agree — the Pipeline needs work.
“It has such great potential to be a great facility and it needs to be a great facility,” Shibler says. “It needs to be there. And it needs to be better.”
A bowl half empty
In 2016, Pittman and crew held a fundraiser at the park to dig French drains, do some repairs, and assess roof issues. Now, Pittman’s suggesting French drains be dug all the way around the structure, which would hopefully keep the moisture out — a major issue.
Chauncey Sorenson can speak to the wet floors. He recalls how the volunteer concrete company didn’t realize how dry concrete was extremely important to this facility, and therefore, never installed a vapor barrier underneath the concrete.
But Sorenson has spent time in construction and has thought about a fix aside from ripping up all the concrete. “Lay a new surface on the [concrete] pads themselves and put another five or six inches of concrete on it with a vapor barrier in between the layers,” he says. “When you do that, you could put an internal drain system inside of there … that way it would catch the vapor before it gets to the surface.” He also recommends a bowl and some more advanced features for the area behind The Pipeline, so kids could gain some more professional skater-level skills.
Pittman, though, has multiple other ideas for improvements — everything from a paid employee overseeing programming for the park, skateboard clinics, murals, art projects, and incorporating live music. That and building out the park area to be more of … a park.
“I thought it would have been great to have a covered area on the outside where families can cook and grill and do birthday parties,” he says. Picture a family party under a ramada at Jackie Renninger Park. The adults are cooking and the kids — and maybe the adults too — are skating.
But Pittman wants to make this more of a conversation and talk with skaters from other generations. “I want to meet with people,” he says. “Logan Terry has some really good ideas. And he’s, I think, like 30.”
Actually, Logan Terry is 31.
Terry is a Tlingit artist who’s been skating since he was 8. He did, in fact, have ideas.
“With trends in skateboarding, the tricks and style of skating that people do changes. And I think the skate park hasn’t really gone with that,” Terry says.
Terry describes the Pipeline as having a back-and-forth layout, making the design basic, the features duplicative. He says he realizes it would be a lot of work to change that, but, “We can be adding more features to the space that we have, and not have so many redundant, generic things.”
Terry too says there are issues with moisture and wet floors. “There’s no actual flow of air, which causes everything to get wet as soon as it’s rained for a day or two,” he says. Terry thinks cutting out holes in the structure, maybe installing fans, would help with the stagnant air and make the park more skateable year-round.
Someone else has thought hard about improvements, especially the wet floor. Patrick Van Pool, skater and owner of Sequence Boardshop, agrees the park is not necessarily skateable year-round. Summer is great, but again, seasonal rains bring heavy moisture into the nearly enclosed facility, causing the cement ground to be pretty slick. Not great for skateboarding.
“You got a urethane wheel on hard concrete that’s wet … you have no control,” he says. So most people just skate on the surface ramps, which can cause bottlenecks in the park.
Van Pool knows this park well as someone who’s been skating since the early ‘90s. And for years, he worked with the Zach Gordon Youth Center — part of Parks and Recreation and one of the original entities involved with JDHS when the Pipeline was in its fundraising stage.
Van Pool enjoyed how the center would hear input from skateboarders and youth.
“All the kids were involved with it. We built everything in the park at this stage,” he says, quick to pull up Pipeline skate videos and point out certain features of the park. “This is all skater made, which was awesome.”
While Van Pool is no longer with the Zach Gordon Youth Center, he still donates time to the Pipeline.
“There’s a lot of us that still go there and fix ramps. We just go buy wood at Home Depot and fix stuff,” he says. “Because you can’t just have a construction worker go in there and build something because they have no idea what they’re doing. It’s up to the skaters to make sure it’s skateable.”
Next on deck
The trend should be apparent by now: There’s a sense of responsibility among former and current skaters to caretake the park. And why?
“Our skate park is kind of like the bloodline of skateboarding,” Van Pool says. “Without the skate park, there’s not really anywhere to skate growing up.”
Even Landon Smallwood, a 16-year-old sophomore at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School, will grab a broom at the park when “the dust gets pretty bad.”
He likes The Pipeline for the art, the smoother surfaces, and the escape from the weather. But also because his dad, Wayne Smallwood III, someone who skated Juneau in the ‘90s, helped build the park.
“Just, it needs some work,” Smallwood says. Again, the wet flooring. Some of the wooden structures are falling apart. Lack of airflow makes it hot in the summertime. And (a new one), if you skate in there too long you might get a nosebleed from dust. But he has ideas, too. Possibly a fan, repairs to major spots, and maybe a little more supervision, especially for the bathrooms.
Overall, that $75,000 and public process aimed at Jackie Renninger Park, aka The Pipeline, and other endeavors from Parks and Recreation are important efforts to the skating community here — a scene that is definitely still regenerating.
“I try my best to skate every day,” says Smallwood. He was drawn to the sport at 10 years old because it’s more independent. “I was able to just go out and do it anytime I wanted,” he says. “Not have to have a coach or anything.”
Logan Terry has a similar story. “I was super into football, really into basketball, but I was always too small to play any of those sports,” he says. Then he found his older brother’s skateboard in a closet and the rest is history.
Sonny Pittman agrees. “It’s become, I think, a little more common for people our age to understand skateboarders are just kids that don’t play other sports or prefer this over other sports,” he says. “I played basketball until I found skateboarding … it just spoke to who I am.”
But Kristi West, now the Eagle Valley Center Manager and someone who Pittman calls the “mother of the skate park,” doesn’t think people realize how respectable skateboarding is. And while it is an independent spot, the Pipeline was definitely a group effort.
“I’ve watched my children, my grandchildren, skateboarding, and there’s so much to it. … It’s concentration. It’s athleticism. And it’s brain work,” she says. And, “it gave these young people a place to have a community.”