School Board Tells City to Proceed With Pools Plan

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 07:04:00 PM

The Berkeley Board of Education voted unanimously on April 15 to ask the city to proceed with an environmental review of the citywide pools master plan.  

The board also affirmed the Berkeley Unified School District’s willingness to host the warm water pool—located at Berkeley High School’s Old Gym—at the West Campus, the former site of the Berkeley Adult School.  

Berkeley Unified collaborated with the city last year to assess the aquatic needs of the community and construct a new warm pool. Under Berkeley High School’s South of Bancroft Master Plan, the landmarked Old Gym and the warm pool inside it will be demolished in June 2011. The joint project also sought to fund renovations or other improvements necessary for Berkeley’s outdoor community pool centers and to outline options for new pools.  

An aquatic task force formed last fall incorporated extensive community input to create the master plan, comprising of a preferred option and two alternatives.  

“Community involvement was one of our strengths,” task force member Madelyn Stelmach—who also sits on the city’s Commission on Disability—told the board. “We went out of our way to do that.”  

Stelmach said the task force strove to serve the aquatic needs of the entire community amid a tough economic climate, funding constraints and a variety of opinions.  

Task force member Seth Goddard added that the limited land the district was offering for the West Campus pools was a further challenge.  

The plan favored by the group seeks to construct a new 25-yard by 25-meter outdoor competition pool and renovate the locker rooms at King Middle School, removing the existing instructional and dive pools for $4.8 million.  

It will renovate the aging instructional pool and locker rooms at Willard Middle School and convert the dive pool into a children’s play pool with waterslides for $4 million.  

West Campus will have a new 2,790-square-foot, 92-degree indoor warm water pool and a 3,510-square-foot indoor recreational pool, costing around $20.3 million. The existing lap pool will be destroyed.  

Describing West Campus as the master plan’s “focal point,” Goddard said the investment would have a positive influence on the surrounding neighborhood, one of the poorer and more disadvantaged parts of Berkeley.  

The overall price tag for all three projects is nearly $30 million, with operational costs ranging between $945,000 and $1.2 million—numbers that are much higher than current budgets.  

Goddard attributed this increase to the fact that, under the new plan, the school district would no longer be paying utility bills for the warm pool. Instead, the city would be covering all costs.  

Currently the district pays utility bills for the warm water pool and covers part of the cost for the West Campus pool. The city covers the rest of the costs for the West Campus pool and all the expenses of King and Willard pools.  

The two alternative plans suggested by the task force reduce the West Campus warm water pool to nearly half the size proposed in the preferred plan and eliminate the new recreational pool.  

The first alternative talks about repairing the existing West Campus lap pool and operating it at the current hours. The second alternative proposes fixing the pool, but shelves plans to run it until funding becomes available.  

Construction costs for the two alternatives range between $18 million and $16 million.  

Operational costs for both options still run higher than current expenses, with the second proposal, at only $15,000 above present-day costs, turning out to be the least expensive of the three options.  

JoAnn Cook, a task force member, told the board that the smaller warm pool suggested in the alternatives would not benefit its users.  

“We did a good job of designing the preferred plan and had good input from community groups, but it is a bit expensive,” she said. “We were pushed to develop alternative plans that would come in on a lower figure, and that’s where we went off. There isn’t any way that a 14,000-square-foot pool will be adequate for our programs,” she said. “Once it’s built, keep in mind, we can’t change that.”  

School Board Director John Selawsky expressed some reservations about the exorbitant construction costs.  

He said the original goal of the district and the city had been the replacement of the warm pool and possible construction of new pools.  

“It’s grown to a much larger animal than the warm water pool,” he said. “Parts of this is a mistake—in this economy, it is a mistake. We will have a hard time convincing voters to support the plan.”  

The city is considering putting the pools on the June ballot for next year.  

Selawsky said he would “gladly support moving the warm water pool to West Campus” but asked the task force to scale back on the rest of the plan.  

Goddard informed the board that the deteriorating condition of the Willard pool made its renovation extremely important.  

Huyett reminded the board that the school district had only a marginal interest in the pools.  

“Most of the decision making will be done by the city,” he said. “We accept having the warm pool at West Campus, but this is not really our ballgame. We as a board have said consistently that we don’t want to take responsibility for designing or operating the pools. We don’t want to be the decision maker on what goes on in the property. We are just leasing the land to the city.”  

The council is expected to vote May 5 on whether to ask city officials to move ahead with the environmental review.