Island residents voice concerns, support regarding city’s Bike Skills Area

Area has been closed since last October.

Conversations regarding the usage and renovation of the Bike Skills Area (BSA) at Mercer Island’s Upper Luther Burbank Park don’t always have the participants seeing eye to eye. As the project rolls along, the city and park conservationists are eager to see how the area will be transformed and hopeful it will make a positive impact on the community.

Since Oct. 7, 2021, the area has been shuttered due to significant operating challenges and safety concerns, including unauthorized course expansion and construction of new trails — which deteriorated copious vegetation — and large jumps that exceeded the posted guidelines, according to the city.

The city hired consultant Mike McIntyre from Action Sports Design (ASD) out of Austin, Texas, to fully assess the site and provide the city with recommendations about improving the area. His initial report presented at a virtual community meeting on Nov. 15, 2021, focused on addressing the impacts on soils and vegetation and a consideration of potential modifications of the site — also known as the BMX Course or Snake Hill — which has been in existence for decades.

“We’ve worked really hard to try and meet the needs of both the Friends (of Luther Burbank Park) and the biking community,” said Alaine Sommargren, the city’s deputy director of Public Works. “We’re really committed to making this work for the open space and for the recreation. We don’t have any interest in sacrificing one for the other.”

Sue Stewart, president of the Friends, said the city has displayed sensitivity to the park for many years, but “we’re just really surprised that during COVID — we know that was a difficult time for everyone — they pretty much just let the 20 kids, they pretty much had it all to themselves.” The longtime neighborhood resident said she witnessed 10 kids digging and 10 youths riding on the BSA during that time frame.

Stewart — who feels that only low-impact activities should occur in the park — said Friends thought the consultant would determine that the upper area of the park was not an appropriate location for the BSA because, for example, the sandy and silty soil was not a proper match for the area and because the area features steep hillsides. Stewart said the Friends have amassed 342 signatures on a petition to protect the BSA area of the park.

Sommargren noted that the city received the consultant’s draft report the week of March 7 and is hoping to obtain a final version in the upcoming weeks. The report, which contains a couple of concepts and layouts, was delayed for several months due to health reasons, and the project is moving forward again.

Some highlights of the report are: devising a course layout that stays within the current footprint; including professionally built jumps that follow safety standards and are a proper fit for the site; and no unsupervised jump building. But they want input from the energetic riders. On the soil front, they will need to bring in more appropriate soil for creating long-lasting stable jumps.

Since the BSA closure, Sommargren said the parks maintenance crews have been redistributing the soil used for the jumps onto the surrounding hillsides and replanting much of it.

“We’re really interested in stabilizing the hillsides, getting vegetation back on them so we’re minimizing any erosion in the area,” she said.

Stewart said she’s concerned about bikers continuing to carve out new, illegal trails on the course.

“The containment issue is the big thing. If you spend $215,000 to build a mountain bike course in Upper Luther, if you bring them in here, I don’t think you’re going to contain them from making new trails,” she said. “This has just really not been thought out as a designed park. If that is what it becomes, people from the entire county are going to be coming here — parking, riding. It will be an announced mountain bike park, which it has never been a mountain bike park. It was closed as a vandalized BMX park.”

The Friends are not against kids getting their recreation, but Stewart suggests the city council allocate funds to transport the riders to the more expansive Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park on the Sammamish Plateau.

Members of the Mercer Island high school and middle school mountain biking teams are ardent users of the BSA and anxiously await its return.

At the March 15 city council meeting, rider Quintin Shiers gave a heartfelt speech about the need for the BSA in the community.

“I think it’s important just to have a bike skills area in the first place. I like that I can just ride to Snake Hill and back when I want to on my own schedule and not have to deal with time restrictions. Please prioritize this. I miss this park every day,” he said.

Added fellow team member Ronan Halloway-Lamb: “The Mercer Island (Bike Skills Area) is a vital part of the community and is an asset that so many teens need.”

According to the mountain biking teams’ coach Brian Shiers, a petition in support of reopening the BSA has gained nearly 500 signatures.

Currently, Sommargren said the city doesn’t have a dedicated budget for the BSA, adding that the $215,000 amount was a high-level early estimate for making the area a sustainable facility while also addressing safety and environmental issues. The city currently doesn’t have an appropriation request scheduled for city council, and Sommargren noted that the plan would probably go to the Parks and Recreation for an initial review.

While Stewart refers to the area as a mountain bike park, Sommargren noted that while the primary users are now mountain bikers, the city’s Bike Skills Area moniker is more inclusive for all riders.

Sommargren added that through the city’s “broad brush” BSA survey, nearly every person who responded lives on-Island and most of them bike to the area. She added that parking concerns might not be valid now since the BSA is much smaller scaled than places like Duthie Hill, which has much more of a regional draw. It’s hard to say what will happen over time, she said.

“This is much more sort of neighborhood-oriented in its size. It doesn’t have the sort of sprawling trail network that usually mountain bikers are looking for,” said Sommargren, who noted that the BSA is referenced on three pages of the city’s recently adopted Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan.

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