If He Builds It, They Will Skate

By Arrissia Owen

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Posted August 4, 2011 in Feature Story

Joe Ciaglia bailed big time. This was strange only because Ciaglia, owner of California Skateparks, is a man who rarely quits. In this one time, it was possibly life or death—at the least a body cast—for the extreme skateboard park designer who helps make über-skater Rob Dyrdek’s skateplaza dreams come to life.

Known for his lush landscaped skateplazas at high-profile events like the Maloof Money Cup and mega ramps at the X Games, the Upland resident carved a niche for himself as Dyrdek’s “yes man.” “Yes,” as in, “Yes, I can build whatever you dream up, even if it’s ridiculous, including the world’s largest skateboard, 12.5-times bigger than your own deck set up, to set a Guinness Book of World’s Record.”

That skateboard nearly obliterated Ciaglia during a ride at Camp Woodward, a residential action-sports camp in Pennsylvania. The proof is on the Internet at Ciaglia’s company website (www.californiaskateparks.com) for anyone to see, again and again. As the board veered perilously toward a 15-foot BMX dirt ramp, Ciaglia jumped off, narrowly escaping getting smooshed under a gargantuan skate wheel.

Then there was the skate car, which Dyrdek drove during an episode of his MTV show Fantasy Factory on the now-famous Rainbow Rail, pulling a 50-50 grind and more. That was just the start of the shenanigans.

Ciaglia slowly became a fixture on Fantasy Factory, even roping Dyrdek into his love for thoroughbred horse racing. The two teamed up to convince Hollywood Park to let Dyrdek compete as a jockey for an episode. (Spoiler alert: next season there may be ostriches onboard.)

And if that’s not enough, MTV Cribs is filming an episode featuring his skateable backyard landscaping and The Museum of Contemporary Art will be exhibiting skateable art features designed by Lance Mountain that Ciaglia built in the show “Art in the Streets.”

“It’s weird,” Ciaglia says.

Yes.

Driven to Exceed

Ciaglia didn’t set out to become the world’s most beloved skatepark designer. He did, however, have his sights set on success. After graduating early from San Gabriel High School, he started working at a local grocery store, soon moving into management. He realized quickly that he liked getting paid. That led to his first foray into entrepreneurship: a carpet-cleaning company.

The steam clean man sold that company shortly after getting married to his wife, Stephanie. The couple had a baby on the way and bought a new home in Upland.

Ciaglia started to beautify his home, like most new homeowners. It didn’t take long for neighbors to notice his knack for reaping what he sowed. Before he knew it, his landscaping client list was 35 deep from around the neighborhood. His new profession found him.

Ciaglia became a licensed landscape contractor and opened for business as California Landscape & Design. Because he was always willing to go big with his clients’ ideas—nothing was ever too outlandish—Ciaglia began to attract high-end projects.

The first famous face was Christian Okoye, the Kansas City Chiefs’ hall of famer known as the “Nigerian Nightmare.” He wanted a swimming pool at his Alta Loma home that looked like a football field under water. The price tag was about a quarter-million dollars. Ciaglia scored.

From the Ground Up

Aside from the specialized projects that began coming his way from word-of-mouth, Ciaglia also started talking his way into city landscaping maintenance contracts. He was still working out of the laundry room of one of his rental properties.

Thanks to his maintenance contract with the city of La Verne, in 1998 he was asked to submit a bid to build the town’s first public skatepark. You can guess his answer.

What made Ciaglia good at building skateparks right away was not just that he was the lowest bidder or that he put profits behind quality—he cared about the craftsmanship because he grew up skateboarding. He also had an eye for detail because of his background in custom residential construction.

That led to more city-funded skateparks in San Dimas and Glendora.

But Ciaglia soon grew frustrated. The architects he worked with on the designs had very little skateboarding experience. When he started designing Fontana’s skateparks, he began making suggestions.

The first thing that he set out to change was the city’s regulation that did not allow skate bowls built deeper than four feet. He convinced the city by flying to Oregon with Scott Bangle, who was then Fontana’s public services manager, to check out existing public bowls of greater depths.

Ciaglia helped take the skateparks out of the chain-link fences to transform them into city showcases. It made perfect sense after all because skateboarders put on a show.

“I started educating cities about what skateparks could be,” Ciaglia says. He started introducing landscape elements and open walkways for pedestrians. The features became more advanced, as well, to cater not only to beginning skateboarders, but intermediate and advanced ones as well.

By 2002, Ciaglia started winning awards for his vision, the first being the California Park and Recreation Society award for design, which helped set precedence for public skatepark designs.

Pipe Dreams

But the building accolades didn’t do away with one nagging nuisance in Ciaglia’s mind. He wanted to be the skatepark builder for the city of Upland, his hometown. It’s the site of one of the world’s most famous and nostalgic skateparks of all time: Pipeline, home of the Combi Pool.

He eventually got the bid, even possibly losing a little dough to appease his own ego. No way was someone else going to build a skatepark in his hometown.

Now he’s hoping Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga step up to the skate plate.

Ciaglia was perfectly content tucked away on Benson Avenue in Upland, away from the fanfare and spectacle that surrounds so much of the celebrated skate community. He was building skateparks around the nation, even in backyards and warehouses of megaskaters like Tony Hawk, Paul Rodriguez, Bucky Lasek, Ryan Sheckler and Shaun White who wanted top-notch looking personal training facilities.

Those relationships are beneficial for both entities. Ciaglia listens to what the pros want in a skatepark, and from that he becomes a better skatepark designer and builder.

“They know what they like to skate and I develop that,” Ciaglia says.

Who you callin‘ Maloof?

But then in 2007, multi-millionaire Palms Casino and Sacramento Kings co-owner Joe Maloof called.

Maloof wanted Ciaglia to build the skateplaza for the money man’s new skate contest: the Maloof Money Cup, a skate contest that promised the biggest money purse in skateboarding history.

Why, yes—of course.

The first Maloof Money Cup was held in Costa Mesa. The task at hand: build a concrete, arena-style skateplaza with cityscape backdrop in five days. Maloof made it clear money would not be an issue. And Ciaglia would have input from pro skaters, including Andrew Reynolds and Dyrdek.

The result, nearly impossible in many people’s minds—even Dyrdek’s initially—was a piece of art. “It looked like a beautiful plaza,” Ciaglia says. “It created a big buzz in the skate community.”

Dyrdek became Ciaglia’s biggest fan. He called on Ciaglia to create the indoor skatepark for the set of his upcoming TV show Fantasy Factory, the follow up to the hit reality show Rob & Big. The skatepark became a star of the show, as well, serving as the backdrop for many memorable scenes. He also builds the skateplazas inside hockey arenas for Dyrdek’s Street League contest series.

“That took all of this to a whole ’nother level,” Ciaglia says. He continued building skateplazas for the series of Maloof contests, each one outdoing the last. Each is disassembled and donated to community skateparks for public use.

The requests kept coming from Maloof, each more spectacular than the last. In New York, Ciaglia’s cohorts took on the site of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, building a skateplaza in the old 140-foot diameter pool of the Astral Fountain.

The humble offices of California Skateparks even became a little famous. A covert skate spot was erected there for one night to film a Chris Cole skate sequence for a DC shoes commercial.

“It’s Been Kind of Great”

Ciaglia’s success blossomed into a myriad of businesses: California Landscapes & Design, California Skateparks, California Rampworks and he is co-owner of Mega Ramp. He has gone international, with a current project in the works for Maloof in South Africa, and another one possibly coming up in Brazil.

He currently oversees the construction of 11 skateparks, utilizing about 150 employees. His company has built at least 200 parks total. Many of his employees are skateboarders, most notably skate legend Lance Mountain, who works as a part-time skate park designer. His first ever employee, Trinidad Sanchez, still works for him, as well. Ciaglia is equally proud of both.

X Games commissioned a vert ramp to start with and now has Ciaglia building most everything, integrating BMX into the equation.

The best of Ciaglia’s CV is free for some. In the works is the Etnies Lake Forest park, the first $1 million public skatepark Ciaglia has ever built. California Skateparks is in the process of expanding to 60,000 square feet, making it one of the biggest in Southern California. Non-Lake Forest residents pay a mere $5 ID card fee.

But the small projects are just as dear to Ciaglia’s heart, most recently the New Berrics Public Skatepark in Westchester, Los Angeles, which opened July 22. There are many more through Dyrdek’s Safe Spot Skate Spot project and the Tony Hawk Foundation.

“It’s been kind of great,” Ciaglia says. “I’ve been trying to help everyone as much as I can.”


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