Jeff Keyser fondly remembers he and his friends riding their skateboards past the Iowa City skatepark as it was being built back in 2002.
Keyser was in middle school at the time and had already been skateboarding for a few years. He got into skating in the late ’90s after he and his brother got Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the PlayStation 2. He thought it would be cool to learn how to do the tricks that are done in the video game.
“We would hop on the bus, and we’d go downtown. We’d get off at the main bus station by the Old Capitol Mall, and we would ride our skateboards down Dubuque Street and check on the progress,” Keyser said. Now in his 30s, Keyser still considers himself a regular at the park.
“I just remember being super excited to have a big outdoor concrete park, which when I first started [skateboarding], I wouldn’t have even thought that that was something that we would ever have.”
That excitement for the nearly 20-year-old skatepark hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s only increased as more and more skaters have used the park. Local skaters of all ages who spoke with Little Village expressed enthusiasm for skating’s more socially acceptable status in town and the “home away from home” that has been cultivated at the IC skatepark.
But some of the skaters also recognize there might be ways to make the park even better for skaters of all skill levels, and they have started discussions about potential improvements ahead of the City of Iowa City’s slated six-figure renovation of the skatepark.
‘It’s far more than just a skatepark’
While skateboarding was popular in Iowa City a decade ago, it was a different scene before the skatepark was built.
Back then, there were wooden ramps with sheet metal coverings on them in the parking lot at Mercer Park. The park is right next to Southeast Junior High School, so after school got out, Keyser would grab his board and meet up with his friends. The group would skate on the ramps and then take the bus to the University of Iowa campus and weave through downtown streets.
“It was kind of like the gathering place to hang out, but it was … just kind of a completely different vibe than when they built the big outdoor concrete park that we have now,” Keyser said.
Vince Onel, who grew up in Iowa City and now lives in Los Angeles, said he and his friends skated at Mercer Park from time to time, but it was more difficult to get over there since they lived on the other side of town. Onel started skateboarding in the mid-’90s when he was about 10 years old.
Onel mostly skateboarded in his neighborhood with his friends, and it wasn’t until he began taking the bus into downtown Iowa City that he realized how many other kids were also skating.
Both Keyser and Onel, who met each other through skateboarding, recalled being chased by police downtown. Other than the ramps at Mercer, there wasn’t really a legal place to go and skate—until the skatepark opened.
“I think the city recognized there was a need for a safe and designated place for kids to go ride their skateboards, and the police wanted somewhere where they could tell people to go skateboard,” Onel said.
The Iowa City skatepark opened in October 2002 at Terrell Mill Park. It was built by MBA Concrete Inc. of North Liberty. The initial cost estimate for the park was $300,000, but the final cost was $380,000, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported in 2002.
The park was constructed with concrete along with stainless steel edging and coping. There are a number of bowls, grinding walls and rails, acceleration bumps and other features.
There weren’t many concrete skateparks in Iowa at the time, Onel said, adding that Iowa City was “ahead of its time.”
“There were few municipalities in Iowa at that time who even recognized a need for a skatepark, so I would say Iowa City was pretty progressive in that sense to even consider building a skatepark,” Onel said. “… When they put in this concrete skatepark, we were all pretty blown away and really excited.”
Once the skatepark opened, Onel said he would go every single day up until he left Iowa City to go to college in Los Angeles. Onel now designs skateparks all over the country for a living. He’s a co-owner of Spohn Ranch, an award-winning skatepark design-build firm.
He still skateboards almost every single day, and stops by the Iowa City skatepark whenever he’s in town visiting his parents.
“That park meant so much to me, and to this day means so much to me,” Onel said. “That was my home away from home where many of my lifelong friendships were born. My friends and I hosted events and competitions [and] barbecues at that skatepark. So it’s far more than just a skatepark. It was a home for me, and holds a special place in my heart.”
“It was more than just about skating—it was connecting with other people,” he continued. “And that’s what I love so much about skateparks. That’s what made me so passionate about this field once I formally got into it, is that skateparks are so important, especially nowadays where people are just on their phones, behind the computer, watching TV. It’s a great way to get outside and connect with other people.”
Onel said looking at how the Iowa City skatepark was built through a “modern lens” sheds light on some of the wonky geometry and features that might interrupt the flow while skating.
“Some of the construction quality leaves something to be desired,” Onel added.
Things came full circle when Keyser called him and mentioned there were “some rumblings” about trying to make improvements to the skatepark.
Ryan Wade found himself spending hours at the skatepark last summer when his son Ben took up skateboarding and began to take lessons from local skater Peyton Meiers. It was then that Wade realized how busy the skatepark got and the need for more space and possibly some lights.
“I drove by it every day, and I would see it’s busy, but I never thought I’d go down there and spend hours,” Wade said. “Now that I’ve spent time there, I’m like, holy cow, this thing has a lot of potential. There’s a lot of area there. How can I be involved?”
Wade got to talking with local skater and retired musician Ed Nehring, who looped in Keyser. From there, Onel got involved, as did a number of the skaters who frequently used the park. Nehring said about 10 skaters are regularly involved in the conversations, but more are asked for their input during general chats at the park any given day.
Whether the renovations can happen isn’t for certain and neither is the budget, but skaters have already started to think about what improvements they’d like to see made to the park.
Something Nehring has noticed is the way he skates at the Iowa City park is different from how he rides at Davenport’s skatepark. He said one of the main differences is the texture of the concrete at the Iowa City skatepark, which isn’t as smooth and slippery.
Nehring has been skateboarding since the mid-’70s. He wanted to surf as a kid but living in Iowa didn’t really allow for that. So, he started skateboarding. Nehring has lived in Iowa City since 1985 and has been coming down to the Iowa City park for about 15 years.
The difference in skating is something Meiers noticed as well.
“The way you skate it is a lot more unique and fast-paced and more spontaneous,” Meiers said. “I feel like it’s honestly made a lot of my skating that way from skating this park.”
Another aspect Nehring mentioned was that some of the bowls are uneven at the top, meaning that one side is higher than the other.
“If you can get to the top of the wall on this end to try and get to the top of a higher wall means you have to work quite a bit harder,” Nehring explained. “… When it’s even all the way across all around the top, it just makes more sense mathematically as to how well it is to ride.”
Positioning some of the grind rails in a way that allows skaters to transition from one to the other would also really make a difference, Nehring said. Two of the rails are positioned on either side of the Iowa City Skate Park sign, so there’s no straight shot from one to the other.
A few minor changes would improve the overall functionality of the skatepark, Onel said. (Onel has been helping the group of local skaters on his own time without charge. What has been discussed so far has been conceptual, and he has not been hired by the city—although he did say it would be a dream come true to design and build the new Iowa City skatepark.)
One of the other top suggestions mentioned was making the park more beginner-friendly while still providing a challenge for experienced skaters.
Keyser said the park can be seen as intimidating for people who are just starting out. Adding some smaller ramps and having some other features geared toward entry-level skateboards could make the park a better place for people to learn how to navigate both flat and slanted ground.
It’s something Ben Wade said he’d appreciate. Wade is currently 11 years old and has been skateboarding for about a year. His favorite part about skating is how many different tricks there are to master.
In addition to potential smaller improvements, there is a larger renovation of the skatepark looming, although it’s still a few years away.
Iowa City has $600,000 earmarked in its capital improvement plan to renovate the skatepark in 2025, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson said.
“That would likely be kind of an overhaul of the entire skatepark site, and honestly, that’s about as far as the conversation has gotten at this point with us,” Seydell Johnson said.
The intent would be that the planning and design process would start in 2024, along with public input. The actual construction would be scheduled for the following year.
“I would envision a number of stakeholder meetings or meetings with users out at the park to actually talk about what they use it for, how they like it, what else they’d like to see or envision, and we would need them to help teach us what they’d like to see as much as figuring out what’s possible,” Seydell Johnson said.
Seydell Johnson is aware of the group of skaters interested in some smaller improvements ahead of the city’s renovation. The city has had initial conversations with the group and is interested in talking with them but there is “nothing definite at this point and no timeline,” Seydell Johnson said.
Nehring said a concern that has come up from the skaters is that the park will be closed during the city’s renovation and there will be nowhere for people to skate.
Whether or not that’s the case depends on what happens during the design process, Seydell Johnson said. Generally speaking, she said the city has done it both ways, and referenced playgrounds as an example.
“Sometimes the old playground has to come out before the new one can go in, but last summer, we had a couple where the old playground stayed in place throughout the entire construction period,” Seydell Johnson said. “So it really just depends on how in-depth the renovations are [and] what kind of choices are being made to really know that for the site.”
A shift in acceptance
In the years he’s been coming to the skatepark, Nehring has seen the environment shift with each group of skaters.
“Every skatepark has a different vibe that evolves with whoever the skaters are that are going there at the time,” Nehring said. “I’ve been coming down here for about 15 years, and this is by far the best group of people that have ever been the local skaters.”
Nehring said sometimes people in the community who aren’t familiar with skateboarding might perceive skaters as troublemakers, but he’s noticed a shift in how skateboarding is being perceived in Iowa, particularly with the Lauridsen Skatepark in Des Moines.
The 88,000 square-foot skatepark opened in early May and is the largest open skatepark in the nation.
The Lauridsen Skatepark hosted the 2021 Dew Tour, an annual skateboard competition for men and women that this year served as the only U.S.-based Olympic skateboard qualifying event. Skateboarding is making its debut at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and the 12 members of the inaugural team were announced in June.
“It’s already bringing in revenue and attention,” Nehring said about the Des Moines skatepark. “I think things like that change the community’s attitude about skateboarders and will open them up to being more supportive of a renovation here.”
Keyser also hopes that the Iowa City community will be supportive of whatever renovations happen at the skatepark because “it’s an incredible asset for our community” that is constantly being utilized.
“Renovations or expansion or whatever ends up happening to that city park, I think that’ll only bring more people into that social circle and expand it more and make it more inclusive for everybody,” Keyser said.
“As somebody who’s been around that skatepark since its inception, it’s just really cool right now in skateboarding, it seems to be not only more socially accepted but just a really awesome group of people that are there right now.”
Izabela Zaluska is a staff writer and editor at Little Village. She is very grateful for everyone who spoke with her for this story and hopes that she was able to do the skatepark justice. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.
Skater Spotlight: Peyton Meiers
Skateboarder, 16+ years
It’s all about feeling. The feeling of landing a trick on a skateboard is so rewarding and freeing.
When I was a kid and I’d come here, it was pretty dead or always the same people. Now you see a lot of new faces. I like skating here ’cause I think this park has character, and the way you skate it is a lot more unique and fast-paced and more spontaneous. I think it’s honestly made a lot of my skating, skating this park.
The concrete’s really rough; it’s just old and not up to date. This park’s not an easy park to skate but it’s fun; this is home to me. It’s my local skatepark and I love it, and that’s why I’m really excited about people wanting to make renovations.
I started teaching skate lessons last summer to kids, and they started off just barely being able to stand on the board, and now they all can drop in and roll in and they can ollie and ride the rail and everything. They’re really stoked on skating. [Parents] say they have an enthusiasm for skating that they don’t have with other sports. It feels good to support that and reinforce it. We also talk about etiquette and keeping a good mentality. I feel like skating’s a reflection of your character when you’re doing it.
It can be something that’s celebrated and accepted more. We’re still getting there. This water fountain and the bathroom [at the skatepark] have been closed for… seven years? But that kickflip on the [Park Street] bridge happened, and they were so quick to spend $35,000 on putting in planters to prevent people from going on the bridge. We don’t even have working water here or a bathroom, but you’ll do that over a 10-second video?
When a skateboarder is out doing something that’s never been done in a place like Iowa City, being seen doing it — it’s like somebody making music, just something that wants to be seen or heard. I think that’s where the art is brought back to people. It’s a voice for people and for everyday things that are happening in the streets. This is what we can do to be heard.
Skater Spotlight: Ellie Zupancic
Rollerskater, 1 year
I think part of the reason I picked up skating was TikTok. It definitely became popularized on that app at the beginning of the pandemic, and I was at home and bored and thought, Why don’t I get a cheap pair online? I took a chance not knowing if it would stick or not, if it’d be a good investment, and it ended up being really fun.
I started on my wood floors at home then migrated to parking lots with no cracks, no sidewalks. I was pretty incessant about going every day. After about a month I came [to the skatepark], then another month before I felt comfortable dropping into the bowl and learning tricks.
Everyone here is pretty welcoming and supportive and encouraging; it wasn’t a place where I felt “this is too daunting.” Everyone is really big on sharing. No one is left here without a ride home at the end of the night. But it definitely took a while being the only one on roller skates and feeling comfortable moving around without running into people and being run over. That agility definitely took me a while to get.
There are things built into the park that interrupt the flow, so removing those would be beneficial. Another huge thing would be lights, which are really pricey, but having lights would ensure just more time for skating — people can be out here past 4 p.m. in the winter, if there’s no snow.
I might not be here in five years, but I hope in five years the park is here and it’s kicking. There’s room for so many people to come to the skatepark and I hope that the demographics keep changing to be as diverse as possible.
Skating cemented itself really obviously as something [that’s] going to be a part of my life no matter if I’m in grad school or working a full-time job. I encourage anyone who’s considering it to take that chance. I’ve scraped my knee so many times and bloodied my chin, and that’s part of it, but as my dad always says whenever I tell him I have a new injury, “It makes you feel more alive.”
A Guide to Eastern/Central Iowa Skateparks
In the CRANDIC
Iowa City Skatepark (2002)
Terrell Mill Park, 1209 N Dubuque St, Iowa City
11,500 square feet, bowls, grinding rails and walls, spine wall, hips, acceleration bumps
Riverside Skatepark (1999)
1225 C St SW, Cedar Rapids
Concrete surface with nine steel obstacles, including a half-pipe, ramps and railings.
320 3rd St NW, Mt Vernon
801-851 Plum St, Tipton
Around the QC
Davenport Skatepark (2006)
Centennial Park, 900 W River Dr, Davenport
1411 Brady St, Davenport
Ramps, half-pipes, rails, bowls, indoor
Eldridge Outdoor Skatepark
174 E Iowa St, Eldridge
Flora Skatepark (2019)
1805 Flora Park Dr
16,000 square feet
255 East 24th St
McAleece Park and Recreation Complex (2000)
Chaplain Schmitt Island, 1800 Admiral Sheehy Dr
Half-pipe, quarter pipe, ramps, pyramid, manual pad, rails
Olliewood Action Sports Skatepark (2015)
3125 Cedar Crest Ridge B, Dubuque
Ramps, spines, banks, ledges, rails, quarter pipes (indoor)
South of the CRANDIC
Washington Skatepark (2002)
1000 W Madison St, Washington
Quarter-pipes, pyramid, mini ramp, grind box
OB Nelson Skatepark (2014)
202 W Fillmore Ave, Fairfield
4,000 square feet, multi-level bowl with a waterfall, tombstone extension and multiple hips; also ledges, rails and curved manual pad
Oskaloosa Skatepark (2012)
259-299 High Ave W, Oskaloosa
Seating, stairs, bowls, ramps, manual pad, ledges, rails, quarter-pipe
Ottumwa Skatepark (2000)
River St, Ottumwa
Flat rail, grind box, spine, funbox, quarter-pipe
North of the CRANDIC
Cedar Falls Skatepark
Grove St, Cedar Falls
Grind rail, half pyramid, quarter-pipes, grind box, fly box
Riverside Skatepark (2020)
Touchae Park, 601, 999 Park Rd, Waterloo
8,500 square feet
Lauridsen Skatepark (2021)
901 2nd Ave, Des Moines
88,000 square feet, largest open skatepark in the nation, hips, rails, elevation changes, ledges, stair sets, banks, gaps, quarter-pipes, mini-ramps, pools, bowls, WOW skateable art feature
Prairie Ridge Skatepark
1400 NW Prairie Ridge Dr, Ankeny
9,000 square feet, ramps, stairs, roll-in areas, benches, bowl, quarter-pipes, grinding rails, pyramid, fun box
1000 Venbury Dr, Altoona
Stairs, moguls, double hump box
Grinnell Skatepark (2019)
Corner of 8th Avenue and Prince Street, Grinnell
814 S 6th St, Marshalltown
Half-pipe, quarter-pipe, grind rails, ramps, stairs, grind box
Presented by Think Iowa City