On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will decide whether to rezone Berkeley Iceland, the historic Art Deco skating rink where Olympic champions Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi honed their skills, from recreational to retail use, allowing the building to be sold to a big-box retail sporting goods store. And a coalition of skaters and their parents called Save Berkeley Iceland will be there to try to stop them.

It's been a long, long struggle for the skaters, who have been raising money to buy Iceland and rehabilitate it since 2007, when it was closed by its owners after a series of caustic anhydrous ammonia leaks from the refrigeration system.

I've been covering this story though its many twists and turns since 1998, when the first gas leak was detected. And while I certainly understand the city's desire to get rid of what it considers a crumbling white elephant and turn it into a revenue-producing retail establishment, deep down I'm rooting for the skaters to win.

A designated historic landmark on the local and national levels, Iceland was one of the West Coast's premier skating venues practically since the day it opened in 1940.

It hosted the Ice Capades, Ice Follies and, in 1947, the first U.S. Figure Skating Championships west of the Mississippi. It was home to the St. Moritz Skating Club (the oldest in California), the Berkeley Bulldogs of the California Junior Hockey League, the official practice facility for the California Golden Seals, home ice to the UC Berkeley hockey team and the site of the annual "Big Freeze" hockey game against Stanford.


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Most importantly, it was home away from home for generations of Berkeley children.

"For many kids, it was the first place where they go and feel independent but (would) still be safe," says Tom Killilea, whose daughter Marie, 16, started skating there when she was 4. "And that's so important, especially for girls."

It was the site of innumerable birthday parties (all the local pizzerias made constant deliveries there), 3-on-3 kids' hockey games and boisterous games of broom ball (no skates, a bouncy rubber ball instead of a puck and brooms instead of hockey sticks).

Everyone fit in, no matter what their skill level. The skating surface was big enough to accommodate the best figure skaters doing their leaps and twirls in the middle, the novices hugging the boards on the edges and the speed skaters and hockey players darting in between, all at the same time.

And skating through the streams of natural light filtering through the iron lattice 40 feet above the ice was a magical experience.

To date, the skaters and their families have raised more than $100,000 through grants, donations, neighborhood fundraisers and street fairs. That's pretty good in these hard times, but it's only a fraction of the millions they'll need to buy Iceland and restore it to its former glory.

But isn't it worth giving them time to make the effort? With a new baseball diamond under construction in the same neighborhood, Iceland could become part of a much-needed recreation district.

And with childhood obesity a national concern, what sense does it make to replace a recreational facility, where kids can actually run around and get exercise, with a store that will merely sell them athletic gear?

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.