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A skateboarder does a trick in a bowl

A Complete 360 in Rocket City

It wasn’t enough to make a professional-grade skate park in Huntsville, Alabama, world-class. It also had to be accessible to everyone.
By Grace Calengor
November 30, 2023
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Founded in 1888, Schoel Engineering has provided civil engineering, land surveying, landscape architecture, environmental, water resources, laser scanning and modeling, and utility infrastructure services across Alabama. With countless historical sites, multifamily complexes, greenways, mixed-use facilities and much more under its belt, it might seem surprising that the nearly 150-year-old company had never engineered a skate park.

Then Get-A-Way Skatepark kickflipped onto Schoel’s radar—a professional-grade facility that the City of Huntsville wanted to build downtown, in the heart of John Hunt Park, which is named for the city’s founder. “This is a project type we’ve never once worked on,” says Collin Orcutt, Schoel’s Huntsville market lead. “What was most difficult was, the language was different than what was typical in the construction industry. We were learning a whole new interest.”

WHEELS UP

Schoel’s emphasis on design—particularly in landscape architecture—has helped make the company one of the go-to civil engineers for Huntsville municipal projects. When a private donor gave the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville $1 million for a new skate park—matched by the city, with additional donations from other groups, including $10,000 from skateboarding legend Tony Hawk’s The Skatepark Project—Huntsville tapped Schoel to provide landscape-architecture and civil-engineering support. The original Get-A-Way, built in the late 1970s, was a revolutionary skate park that led the skateboarding community in Huntsville to flourish. The new version, while paying homage to its predecessor, would be much grander and more accommodating, surrounded by a newly redesigned playground, along with existing soccer fields, tennis courts, gymnasiums, an ice rink and plenty of green space.

Determined to create a world-class facility, Huntsville turned to Jacksonville, Florida–based Team Pain Skate Parks—which has designed and built skateboarding environments for “Jackass,” the X Games, the MTV Sports & Music Festival, television shows, companies, training facilities and many other clients—to design the poured-concrete part of the park. Having the pioneering company involved instilled a sense of pride and anticipation among the community, skaters and non-skaters alike.

“They were almost across-the-board excited about it,” says James Gossett, Huntsville’s director of parks and recreation. “Anyone who understands the skateboard world knew this would be a high-level facility, so they were excited about it.”

At 52,000 square feet, the new Get-A-Way would feature a clover leaf, a ¾ pipe, a snake run, grind rails and plenty of ramps, small and large bowl drops, and skate-in access from the parking lot. It would also be tricked out with upgraded lighting for events and night skating, electrical hookups for bands and food trucks, rainwater irrigation, spectator seating and other elements to facilitate hosting live and televised competitions. “The skateboarding community is big in Huntsville,” Orcutt says. “People from California were getting on the public [social media] feed saying, ‘Do this, we will travel there.’”

PLAYED OUT

The project broke ground in the summer of 2022 and included the simultaneous renovation of Huntsville’s iconic Kids’ Space Park, adjacent to the new Get-A-Way. The large, castle-like, wooden playground was aging and weathered; Schoel would help bring that back to life as well.

“As Rocket City, we wanted to stick with the theme of exploration,” Orcutt says of the new playground design. The first section is modeled after John Hunt and the founding of Huntsville, while other sections riff on the Saturn V rocket built there, imagine a future on Mars and evoke famous geological formations found in and around the city.

When traversing from Kids’ Space Park to Get-A-Way, visitors pass two longleaf pines—Alabama’s state tree, which the project’s landscape architects argued to not only keep but replenish. “We did save the big pine trees,” Orcutt says. The city also agreed with Schoel’s landscape plans to plant additional trees in the area.

STICKING THE LANDING

Both Kids’ Space and Get-A-Way officially opened on Sept. 13, with a grand-opening event one week later that featured food trucks, music and even members of Team Pain who traveled from Florida to show off some skateboarding tricks. Hundreds of other skateboarders from Huntsville and much farther away also showed up, including representatives of Askate Foundation, which uses skateboarding to engage with children with autism.

The message was clear: Everyone is welcome. “We talk about it in a sense of a skate park,” Gossett says, “but bicycles and rollerbladers and scooters are welcome. A very diverse group of people can take advantage.”

That diversity extends to incorporating grade-A accessibility into the skate park. “You have to design accessibility into public spaces,” Orcutt says. “We have ramps, steps, rails at ADA-appropriate grades, so everyone can participate—even parents, who can sit in the spectator seats under the shade tents or enjoy an unobstructed view of the entire park from their car.”

The response from residents has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Gossett says. In addition to the excitement of the grand opening and potential future events, his favorite part “is to see families there, dads or moms skating with their [children], grandparents coming out to see their grandkids. For me, that is the most exciting.”

Less exciting was working with Schoel and Team Pain—but only because the two companies delivered exactly what Gossett expected. “Both of those agencies are professionals,” he says. “It was just like what I would expect a professional group to do and how we would work with them. They are experts in their field.”

by Grace Calengor
Grace Calengor is associate editor of Construction Executive.

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