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As splash season nears, city begins to write future of Austin pools

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

As the temperature in Austin climbs, kids and adults flock to the city’s several dozen pools. But while the industry puts a pool’s lifespan at 30 years, many of Austin’s pools are 50 years or older. So in 2012, the city decided it would create an Aquatic Master Plan, a document that would imagine the future of Austin’s pools. That process is now in its third – and final – phase of completion.

Kimberly McNeeley, an assistant director with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told the Austin Monitor that staff is now sitting down to actually write the plan – pitched as a road map for the future of Austin’s water recreation.

“How many pools do we need to have? What do those pools need to look like?” asked McNeeley, as an example of some questions the master plan will answer.

Cheryl Bolin, a manager with the city’s Aquatic Division, put it another way. “If one of the critical ones was to have failure, we would look to the master plan for the guidelines on what should happen to that particular pool,” Bolin told the Monitor.

The age of Austin’s pools has driven the conversation about how they should be managed. In 2014, as the first phase of the master plan development, staff assessed the current health of the city’s pools – putting the average age of these pools at 50 years old, while industry standards place a pool’s lifespan at 30 years.

So, while the Aquatic Master Plan will implement feedback from specific neighborhoods about what they would like to see in the way of water recreation over the next decade, age binds the pools together – allowing the conversation about their futures to be more collective.

“With all of our pools being at an average age of 50 years old, almost all of our pools struggle,” said Bolin.

This last phase – the writing of the master plan – also pulls together input collected from community meetings. Events that unfolded last spring made particularly clear the importance of community involvement in this process. In April 2015, city staff announced it would close two pools east of I-35 (Metz and Mabel Davis) because of significant leaks.

In April, East Austin leader Gavino Fernandez asked the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, “If we knew this was leaking way back when in the day, why is it that one month-and-a-half before we’re into the summer, we’re being told that they may be closed?”

Given the community backlash, the city eventually backtracked on its plan to shutter the pools and paid to have the two pools repaired in time for the summer season.

With the master plan, the aim is to reconcile the challenges faced by Austin’s pools – they are aging, and the department acknowledges it does not have money to pay for all the necessary repairs – with the wishes of residents, some of whom have used their neighborhood pools for several decades.

“[The pools] have been here over 50 years, right? And so it becomes part of their family.” said Bolin. “They go there as kids, they have this connection.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

Update: Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT piece is embedded below.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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