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Council wades nervously into pools plan

Wednesday, August 2, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council delivered decidedly mixed reviews of the Parks and Recreation Department’s recently unveiled Aquatic Master Plan, with some Council members decrying what they fear is a plan to shut down neighborhood pools and others bemoaning the unequal distribution of facilities throughout the city.

Acting Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley kicked off the discussion at yesterday’s Council work session with a lengthy presentation describing the sorry state of many of the city’s pools.

The master plan, McNeeley explained, offers Council some options on how to respond. Either it can come up with $136 million to maintain the current offerings or it can let some pools go. The master plan, which was crafted largely by a citizen task force, identifies pools that are the strongest candidates for elimination.

To Council Member Ann Kitchen’s surprise, one of the pools in the ominous “red” category was Deep Eddy. The idea of abandoning such an “icon” troubled her.

Unfortunately, replied McNeeley, the 80-year-old pool – the oldest in Texas – is dealing with serious problems due to the well system it operates on. A well blew out recently, forcing a partial closure of the pool, and there have been issues with “water pumping out of the well not being appropriate for people to swim in,” she said.

Kitchen also got bad news when she inquired about Big Stacy, another beloved municipal pool. PARD is collaborating with the Watershed Protection Department and Austin Public Health over environmental concerns related to the naturally heated water discharging into the surrounding area.

Kitchen did not object to staff’s sober assessment of some of Austin’s most popular recreational amenities but said that any decisions that might lead to pool closures “need to be vetted more now,” before the master plan is adopted.

Council members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter argued that above all, the city’s goal should be to keep neighborhood pools open, rather than to worry about providing all facilities the same amenities or investing heavily in larger “community-level” pools that offer more heavy-duty features.

The resolution that Council passed in 2012 to set up the master plan specifically called for keeping “Austin’s neighborhood pools open and free,” said Pool.

What parents want most, Alter said, is a pool within walking distance where they can drop their kids off. They are less interested, she argued, in PARD’s other pool-related ambitions, such as introducing more “zero-depth entry” pools where swimmers can gradually wade into the water, like at a beach.

Echoing what some members of the Parks and Recreation Board said last week when they declined to endorse the master plan, Alter described the blueprint as largely a “plan to decommission pools.”

McNeeley said that was not the case. If Council wants to pony up the money so the neighborhoods can keep what they have, the master plan offers guidance on how to spend it.

“There are no pools that we have on the chopping block but what we are saying is that in the absence of that investment,” the department will be forced to close facilities, she said.

McNeeley also defended some of the proposed upgrades, including zero-depth entry, which she described as a safe way for the smallest youngsters to enjoy the water and a valuable tool for swimming lessons.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed frustration that there appeared to be no plans to put a pool in or near Del Valle, noting that, contrary to popular belief, much of Del Valle is actually a part of the city of Austin.

“We have no recreation center, we have no pool, we have no city facilities,” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar said that Council faced a difficult decision in trying to balance the goal of preserving existing pools with the goal of adding pools in areas of the city where they are most lacking, particularly in the far northeast and far southeast. It might make more sense to try to focus on fewer but larger pools that everybody is within a reasonable distance of.

He highlighted Bartholomew Pool, located on East 51st Street, between Mueller and Windsor Park. This past weekend, he said, there was a line into the pool that rivaled that of Barton Springs. It was also the site of a recent dance performance, “Bartholomew Swims,” the first chapter of a three-part series aimed at celebrating the city’s pools.

“If we can’t get a neighborhood pool to everybody, then I’d like to have a Bartholomew Pool as near to everybody as I can,” he said. “There are plenty of kids with no yard, no summer camp, but if you give them a pretty good pool, it will be full.”

Mayor Steve Adler agreed that it would be tough to decide what to do, calling the matter a “difficult, emotional issue.”

Council is scheduled to vote on whether to approve the plan at its meeting next week, on Aug. 10. However, in a message to her Council colleagues, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who was absent from the Tuesday work session, said that she plans to ask for a postponement on the matter so that she can instead introduce a resolution proposing a new task force to “review and provide feedback” on the master plan.

Photo by Heather Cowper made available through a Creative Commons license.

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