When Minneapolis Uptown skateboarder Hector Peterson stumbled upon a grind box left on the barren concrete where the burned Bde Maka Ska pavilion once stood on the lake's northeast shore, he had to skate it.

Word roared through social media.

In the summer of 2020, Minneapolis skaters did what came naturally to them, Peterson said, by bringing homemade kickers, rails and ramps, until they had remade the blank urban space into one of the most popular skate spots in the city, replete with break dancers and DJs.

"It was just the best place to skate. It turned out being way bigger than we ever thought it would be," he said. "Skaters are super into that DIY vibe. We all built it up. There were no rules or anything about it."

In May, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) received complaints about the unauthorized park and cleared the space.

"The MPRB does not allow installation of recreation amenities on parkland without agreements with the MPRB for a variety of reasons, the primary reason being the safety of park guests," said spokeswoman Dawn Sommers. She also cited the Park Board's ongoing contract with vendor Lola's on the Lake to provide food trucks on site. "A skate park at this location cannot exist without significant impact on the MPRB's food vendor."

Skaters were bummed.

Elliot Park's skate park, the park system's most modern, was under construction at the time. Half a dozen other public skate parks scattered throughout the city, built in the early 2000s, were considered obsolete. The only worthwhile ones charged fees or were in the suburbs.

"As our city continues to try and find ways to negate things that are happening organically in youth culture, it's frustrating," said skater and artist Witt Siasoco.

This summer, the Park Board entered discussions with the skateboarding advocacy nonprofit City of Skate to create a pop-up skate park at Bde Maka Ska. A preliminary agreement called for City of Skate to supply the obstacles and program the space in a portion of the north parking area of Bde Maka Ska Park, separated from traffic.

But the Park Board had a condition: City of Skate would have to purchase liability insurance. It's something asked of all third-party organizations that host programs in the parks, such as the Loppet Foundation and others.

A 2002 lawsuit poses a warning to parks departments that don't take liability seriously, said parks lawyer Brian Rice. In Unzen v. City of Duluth, a golfer who fell down stairs at a city golf course clubhouse successfully sued the city because it had been allowing a third-party vendor to run the building, negating the city's "recreational immunity" under state law.

"The law in Minnesota is that a recreational facility has got to be owned and operated by, and maintained by, a governmental entity in order to have recreational immunity," said Rice. "We've had a very great record of defending guests' claims where people get hurt, and people get hurt in our parks every day."

City of Skate had hoped to bring community input into the design of its pop-up park, according to its leaders; the organization wanted to be an intermediary between the unregulated street skating scene and the Park Board. But as a small nonprofit, purchasing liability insurance is more than City of Skate can take on, said Paul Forsline, the organization's president.

"In the Skate Park Activity Plan we have a very detailed plan of how skateboarding should be implemented in the city, and it's actually an amazing piece of work by the Park Board, but if we don't actually build some of these things, it's kind of a waste of time," Forsline said. "We've been talking about an opportunity here. We need to tackle this liability piece of skateboarding and just move past it and build the facilities because at this point, we're not going to grow the sport within Minneapolis."

Forsline pointed to the Palace Park seasonal skate park in St. Paul as an example of a flexible city recreation department that used obstacles furnished by City of Skate and a park design informed by skaters to fill a hockey rink that otherwise wouldn't get used in summer.

"It was a perfect spot to test some things out," said Andy Rodriguez, St. Paul's recreation services manager. "We've seen a surge of skaters coming from all different parts of town to utilize that space. It's been super successful. But it was basically a pilot idea between Paul and I to see what we could do to maximize our unused space and demonstrate that skateboarding is indeed popular enough that if you build it, they will come."

City of Skate continues to negotiate with the Park Board to find a solution to skateboarding's liability quandary.

Despite street skating's rebellious roots, Peterson said he believes it's in the best interest of the skateboarding community to work with the Park Board to build better amenities for future generations and beginning skaters.

"I hate to say it but, like, [skateboarding is] in the Olympics, it's real now. There's no reason to overlook it," he said. "It's just, like, a healthy space to be in. Everybody's cheering everybody on. Somebody does a cool trick, everybody's gonna cheer and everybody's happy. … There's never a lot of negativity at the skate park and so I think that's a healthy thing for the Minneapolis Park Board to invest their money for the future."

The redesigned and upgraded Elliot skate park reopened to the public earlier this month.

Susan Du • 612-673-4028