Interview: DF Preeti Sodhi & the Manhattan Skatepark
If there’s a “typical” design fellow, Preeti Sodhi may be the farthest from it.
While many of our fellows are out working in rural communities in strange sounding places across the world, Preeti wakes up each morning in New York City and often heads down to the (very) Lower East Side. She’s been managing the design and construction of the rebuilt Coleman Oval (or Lower East Side) Skate Park under the Manhattan Bridge. Her tools, as a city planner, are the means to communicate and tenacity to see through designs as they move from the design studio into the public realm.
In this interview, from June 29, the final day of construction for the skate park, Preeti talks with headquarters about how to get shepherd a community partner's vision in tact into reality. And include dog runs.
Headquarters: So Preeti what have you been up to this past week since the Sneak Peek?
Preeti Sodhi: Well you know the skate park was opened for that day, but it has not permanently opened. There’s been a bit of conversation between the [New York City] Parks Department and California Skateparks to address a few things the Parks Department feels is necessary before the park can open. There’s a site visit in an hour and a half – hopefully everything has been addressed and the park will be able to open for everyone.
That - and working on the dog runs, getting everything for those in order.
HQ. The dog runs. What’s left to do for those?
PS. We have a design that’s being reviewed by the Parks Department. We’re getting close to a design that will work for everyone and be within budget. The next step would be for it to formally be approved by the Parks Department and then we’ll assemble a presentation for the Public Design Commission, which is the next government agency that needs to sign off on the design.
HQ. What kind of design considerations...well, what do the dogs need?
PS. The previous runs had no amenities, the ground was asphalt, so really trying to improve upon that, similar to the skate park...but not as crazy a transformation.
HQ. Righteous. Dog runs being no exception, your design fellowship has a lot of aspects that make it unique. Could you take us through your day-to-day?
PS. Sure. I work with a lot of different time zones. I would wake up on New York time, and find out whatever Steve [Rodgriguez, pro skater / community partner / Nike GAMECHANGERS grant recipient] would need that day, and connect with Parks and other New York-based organizations. Then the West Coast would come online, including Alix [Ogilvie, Architecture for Humanity project manager], Nike and California Skateparks [the contracting crew]. For a while when we were working with Jens [Holm, Architect of Record], he was in China a lot. This project was really challenging getting all the stakeholders on the same page and keeping communication going was something I’d have to balance every day.
It changed as the project went on. In the beginning it was a lot of meetings, trying to get the project going with the Parks Department, getting the builder on board. In the past three months it shifted to construction observation. It took almost a year of work to get to that point.
The old skatepark. The dog run is visible between the back fence and the bridge pier.
HQ. Had you seen a project from conception to completion before like this?
PS. As a planner, seeing this whole process was very unique and exciting. I was lucky because this was a heavy planning project (from AfH’s point of view), but still included design and construction and I learned a lot from that.
HQ. How did you see Architecture for Humanity fit in with all the stakeholders?
PS. With this project there was a lot of negotiation, in the sense that: the initial idea of building a skate park was approved before we got started. But once the project began, negotiating the space and the dog runs and the design: that level of involvement and time wasn’t something we anticipated. If AfH wasn’t involved, there would have been nobody who could see all the moving pieces and do the pushing, and hold the project together. The design charrettes that we did, and working with the community board, all of the community engagement, there would have been nobody to do that.
Planners are taught to look at context and your location and the community that you’re working with. You can’t really know a particular bureaucracy until you work on a project with them. It was helpful that I had worked with the Parks Department before, and I had worked with this Community Board before, and I knew the area.
The Lower East Side has an established way of doing things - you have to go with it. It may have taken a bit longer this way, but talk to anyone in Parks, they’ll be astonished that a whole project happened in 15 months. They’re used to a time frame of like 5 years. For us it seems slow, but for them it seems very fast.
HQ. And the process of taking it to the community boards and stuff like that?
PS. Yeah - going to the community board, with the Park’s design review process and the design commission approval process...these entities are built to deal with things in the course of months, and not weeks or days. It’s hard not having a set date to start construction, but here construction would start when construction world start.
HQ. But the timing actually worked out really well, with the Sneak Peek on Go Skateboarding Day.
PS. Yeah, we had the whole Winter issue to deal with. We had the option to open in October, but this way the timing was better – the park opens at a time people can get a full season out of it.
May 14, 2011 Skater Design Workshop. One of several community outreach sessions to re-envision the skatepark
June 21, 2012: Gates open to the public at the Coleman Oval Skatepark around 4:00. Within an hour, the park was host to thousands.
HQ. It's helpful that you didn't start community engagement from scratch. You’ve established relationships with the Community Rep and the Board in previous projects.
PS. To be honest I wonder sometimes how this project would have happened otherwise. There was a confidence that came with that familiarity. If you’re not familiar with how the city works, it could feel like butting your head against a wall.
HQ. Where did you learn all that? How long did it take you to pick it up?
PS. My degree is in Urban Studies from NYU, and I have Masters in Urban Planning; I’ve been here for 10 years and all I’ve done is work with cities! It was a happy coincidence that I had a fellowship with this community board when I was in grad school. I’m neighbors with the head of the community board. It helped, it didn’t hinder anything, they weren’t shy with me when it came to communicating certain things.
HQ. How did that...would they invite you to dinner parties? Would you see them on the street and be like “what’s up”?
PS. I’d see the head of Parks Committee around and he would be like “Hey Preeti, what’s up, you presenting next week? All right, see ya.”
HQ. Who all participates on the Community Board?
PS. Okay, there’s a head, a district manager, and the board members. Generally only the older people in the community have the time to get involved. Working with the LES/Chinatown, these communities have faced a lot of development and gentrification, so they participate a lot in development and rezoning process.
HQ. When you talk to them about making a skate park bigger and better, how is it received?
PS. It was received well. They want to feel first and foremost that they’re being consulted. There were standard issues regarding the skate park: are people going to be skating on the sidewalk? Will the park be open all hours? You’ll want to be sure to relate it closes at night.
Their biggest concern would be that there wouldn’t be any time without the dog runs, and we built temporary dog runs. If something’s disrupting the usage of a space, you have to be accommodating! The last community board meeting we showed the dog run designs and they were very pleased, and some offered to do further fund raising to add some amenities. Which is great.
The thing with the skate park: how do you define community? There’s the kids who grew up there, and a lot of those kids come form the adjacent public housing, but the population of skateboarding is so broad they come form all over: New Jersey, Long Island, the Boroughs, this community stretches very far.
The new park on Go Skateboarding Day 2012
HQ. Everyone seemed to represent on Go Skate Day, and there's been a lot of media.
PS. What you should try to do is go through the Instagram and Twitter of some of the Nike Skateboarding athletes. They took their own pictures with the kids, it’s really crazy, the kids are so excited to be around them. There’s one of Eric Kosten, who’s on the P. Rod level, a Nike SB skater. You know how Go Skate Day started in Queens, he took this picture: all the athletes took the train from Queens, and the whole car was full of kids heading to LES.
HQ. Some of the videos we're seeing are great, like NYSkateboarding’s interview with Steve Rodriguez. Steve lays out all the design improvements and how they make it a stellar new park. Obviously he had experience and recommendations for the design - how does Steve fit into the whole thing?
PS. Steve has designed skate parks before, most notably the Astoria Skate Park in Queens, but he’s not a trained architect or designer. He had worked with CSP before – essentially what he did was work with Bill Minadeo, landscape architect and builder representative, and Steve would talk about his ideas and they’d collaborate on a park’s development.
Early on in this project, Steve worked with Gabriel [Kaprielian, HQ Design Fellow] to realize schematic designs. Gabe would put Steve’s ideas in SketchUp to visualize something for us and for presentations. The design/build crew California Skateparks finalized design of the park and then put it together.
HQ. Any extraordinary moments?
PS. That time when Alix was visiting, we were standing in that space and it was done, that was a very satisfying moment to see that we had pushed really hard to make the skate park and dog runs the best that we could. The result really reflected that. Whether people would ever give us trouble in the process for this or that, everyone would agree now that the improvement is like 1000%. Whether they were in skateboarding or outside of skateboarding people keep telling us this is hands-down the best skate park in New York City.
It's been a long road. There were 12-15 hour days, and other days that weren’t as crazy, but you’re always on call. If something comes up. I did a conference call on Thanksgiving.
HQ. Haha - with who?!
PS. With Jens and our builder. It was...it was a low moment. I mean, for me I could’ve been like “no we’ll do this next week,” but you know what when there’s this push to really get it done...there was this constant sense of urgency for 16 months. But that’s what you gotta do.
HQ. Is that something you get used to? Keeps you motivated, energized?
PS. That’s just how I operate. But not everyone is on the same wavelength as you, especially when you’re dealing with so many different stakeholders. That’s the New York way. "Get it done."
Another good memory was presenting at the Design Like You Give a Damn conference. It was really nice to be able to interact with people doing similar work and present your work.
Recently I met an architect who was also a parent at a school I used to work for. He was like “Oh I saw you present at that conference.” That was nice to randomly meet someone who was excited about the project and how that got him interested to learn more about AfH.
HQ. I wonder if that foreshadows what you’ll be up to after this.
PS. I have unofficially (or officially) become THE woman who does all the paperwork for skateboarding in New York City. It’s opened up opportunities to do different things. I’d always wanted to work on public space design projects. Now that I have that kind of relationship with people, I might be able to work in these new directions. And work directly with kids as much as possible.
HQ. So skateboarding’s done good by you. And you don’t even skate.
PS. I feel very lucky. I wrote my graduate thesis on skateboarding and had always been looking for a niche project, and I remember thinking to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Nike hired me to build a skate park?” This was a year before I heard about this project at all. It was kind of crazy it got realized you know? I’m grateful to have had this opportunity, that Architecture for Humanity thought that I’d be a good fit.
It was a long project but I think it’s looks so crazy, it's so nice. And the kids are excited. They’re beyond excited. They’re cutting through the fence trying to get in (literally). Hopefully in a couple hours we’ll have some good news for you guys. Like “Park’s done – open.”
HQ. ...And the dog runs?
PS. Temporary dog runs are there, permanent dog runs by the end of the summer. We’re getting there! At this point, everyone involved is wanting to wrap up. Our Adopt A Park is wrapping up: there’ll be a nice sign there that says “all these people worked together on this park.” It’s for me still really emotional.
As a planner you don’t get to work on physical projects a lot, and that skate park will be there for a LONG time. Past when we’re gone. That skate park will be there during the Apocalypse (laughs).
Two hours later, Preeti sent us a message: the skate park is officially open.
Preeti Sodhi is an urban planner who graduated with a BA in Metropolitan Studies from New York University in 2004 and a MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation's Urban Planning Department in 2009. Interested in the planning and design of public spaces, her masters' thesis focused on how the City of New York addressed the appropriation of public space by skateboarders and planned and designed skateparks. Preeti also curated the exhibition “From the Banks to the Globe: The Geography of Skateboarding in NYC”, at the Queens Museum of Art in 2010.