In a continuation of their plan to refurbish and modernize Westchester Park, Los Angeles city officials joined with a representative of the Annenberg Foundation for a groundbreaking ceremony at the park April 11.

A new skate plaza is the centerpiece of the renovation project, which will include a new universal playground, improved lighting and new baseball field bleachers and batting cages.

The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, the Westchester Park Advisory Board and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl all support the improvements as a means to beautify the recreational facility as well as attract more local residents.

The park will feature the latest skate plaza on the Westside, which also includes a beachfront facility in Venice. But those who use the Westchester skate plaza – from beginners to those who have ridden a board for years – will not be required to use any safety equipment, including helmets, unlike their counterparts in Venice.

Craig Raines, a landscape architect with the city Department of Recreation and Parks, said the city’s policy varies from park to park.

“Since the skate place or skate spot/plazas are not staffed, we are only required as per state law to post the signage regarding wearing of equipment,” Raines explained. “At our parks that are staffed, you must wear the gear and the attendant will not let you in to skate unless you are geared up.

“These parks are also generally fenced in.”

At the April 11 groundbreaking, Raines said the lighting and fencing was not included in the budget for the park enhancements, which according to park officials will cost approximately $1 million.

Skateboarders who visit the Venice Beach Skate Park, however, are required to wear safety gear, including helmets. Called by many – including Rosendahl – a world-class park, the Venice facility draws skaters from around the nation, including professional skaters.

Rosendahl joined renowned skateboard champion Jesse Martinez at the Venice Skate Park March 26 during Brain Awareness Month to distribute 24 new, free helmets to young skaters at the park.

“Safety of the kids is our number-one concern,” the councilman said.

Sports injury experts recommend safety equipment for skaters, especially helmets. Dr. Vernon Williams, a neurologist at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Westchester, said head protection can decrease the level of high velocity impact and therefore should be worn while skating.

“The risk of orthopedic and musculoskeletal injuries are high in skateboarding, and they increase without leg, arm and head protection,” Williams said.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, each year in the United States skateboarding injuries lead to about 50,000 visits to emergency departments and most of the hospitalizations involve head injuries. Some heal quickly while others lead to disabilities including loss of vision, hearing and speech, and changes in thinking and behavior.

“Think of a skater who has had a serious fall,” said Williams. “The brain no longer functions normally, and if it has not healed properly, it can’t respond as quickly to avoid impact with another skater.”

A Westchester pediatrician who sees skateboarding injuries to her patients’ elbows and knees, as well as broken collarbones and head injuries in her practice, agrees with Williams.

“I find it outrageous that the city is not planning to make it mandatory to wear helmets,” said Dr. Danelle Fisher, who is also the chairwoman of pediatrics at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. “I spend a lot of time counseling my patients to wear safety gear, and I even tell them that professional skaters wear helmets.”

Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk released a list of safety tips several years ago for biking, skateboarding and anyone riding a scooter. Number four is “always wear a helmet, elbow and knee pads on scooters and skateboards. “You’ll never see Tony Hawk without this essential safety equipment.”

Rosendahl said the Venice park is designed with bowls that allow skaters to perform feats with a higher degree of difficulty and with greater risk, and that is why he passed out helmets with Martinez.

“These bowls can be dangerous, and even the professionals believe that people should be required to wear helmets,” he said.

Steve Berra, a professional skateboarder whose organization, the Berrics, helped design the Westchester skate plaza, also pointed out that the Venice facility is constructed differently than what is planned at Westchester.

“They have a lot of bowls, so it’s a lot easier to hit your head because of the transitions,” he explained.

Berra had a change of heart about safety gear after he spoke with a doctor about the possibility and degree of injuries that skateboarders can suffer without protection.

“I used to be one of those guys that didn’t really believe in wearing helmets for street skating, which is primarily what this park is going to be,” he said at the ceremony.

“But during a conversation with a doctor that I had a year ago, he told me that younger kids’ heads are still growing, and he recommends kids wearing helmets at least until the age of 16 or so.

“So now I’m a big advocate for kids that are still growing to wear helmets.”

Heidi Lemmon, the executive director of the Santa Monica based-Skate Park Association of the United States, says her organization recommends skaters use helmets, elbow and knee pads when they skate in bowls over 8 feet deep, but not for street skating or in a skate plaza, and does not recommend safety equipment for either.

“It’s the same style, with no transition like you would have in an 8-foot bowl,” she said, echoing Berra’s observation.

Nora MacLellan, a Playa del Rey resident who attended the community meetings held by the park advisory board earlier this year, supports the park renovations and the addition of a skate plaza. But she is concerned that there will be no safety equipment required by the city for skaters, even for the beginners.

“Isn’t it a city law that you can not ride a bicycle in the city of Los Angeles under the age of 18 without a helmet?” MacLellan, who is a member of the local council, asked. “Why can they not have the same law regarding skating, especially on city property; doesn’t the city want to protect itself from lawsuits or at least try to protect the kids as much as possible?”

Ann Wexler, a Westchester resident who has a son in middle school, said wearing a helmet should be a “no-brainer” because of the likely demographics of those who use the skate ramps.

“Given that most skaters who use the park will be underage, it seems like the city should require it,” Wexler said. “Regardless of age though, the community has an interest in the issue – our emergency services will be called upon if people suffer more serious injuries because they don’t wear helmets.”

Margaret Herron, who attended the Venice helmet donation event, suffered a personal loss when her son, John, died from injuries that he sustained while skateboarding without a helmet. She now speaks at skating events where she encourages skaters to wear safety protection.

“Think of whoever you love and who loves you before you decide to not strap on a helmet,” she told the skaters in Venice. “Picture your mom standing in a hospital corridor, knowing that you’re not going to make it.”

Rosendahl, who represents Westchester and Venice, said the city is unable to monitor whether skaters are acting in a safe manner for themselves.

“We don’t have police or personnel to enforce these kinds of things,” he said. “It’s an impractical reality.”

In the case of minors who use the skate plaza, the councilman feels that it ultimately is a matter of responsibility for the skater as well as their guardians. “It’s all about parental leadership,” he said.

Herron said she found her son’s helmet in his closet days after he died. “A helmet can be the difference between a headache and death,” she said.

Construction began this week at the park and the renovations are slated to conclude this summer.