Public Comment

Solving Berkeley’s Pool Puzzle

By Donna Mickleson
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:08:00 PM

These days when I’m not sad or angry because something else vital is lost or threatened, I tend to feel grateful. After all we live in a paid off house, I retired last June, and while life is hardly bon-bons on the couch, any or all of five days a week I can exercise and laugh at Senior Aqua Aerobics at the West Campus City pool with the rest of us aging polar bears and our wonderful Fearless Leader, Yassir. 

But of course—you knew this was coming—Berkeley’s aquatics programs and facilities are about to face major change. In the coming weeks, after consultants and a Pools Task Force spent a gazillion hours (and more than a few bucks) in research and eye-glazing meetings, the City Council will be presented with some “options.” It’s intended that one will be chosen to become a bond issue for the June, 2010 ballot, which will propose badly needed renovations and upgrades at the three outdoor neighborhood pools (King, Willard, and West Campus.) 


The Warm Pool quandary 

But the gorilla in the locker room, and the main reason it has come to this, is the dilemma of the “Warm Pool,” heated to 92 degrees (about ten degrees more than your average public pool), serving people with a wide range of ages, disabilities and needs, and located for decades in the Berkeley High gymnasium building. Most pool regulars—who suffer with a wide range of debilitating conditions from severe chronic pain to auto-immune diseases, congenital illnesses and more—see the pool as a lifeline.  

Often it is the only therapy that offers them even partial relief. Dona Spring, the profoundly disabled longtime District Four Council representative who died last year, was a regular user, and of all her many causes, keeping a warm pool in Berkeley may have been the closest to her heart. (Incidentally, the “warm” pool at the YMCA is 86 degrees—not high enough for most Warm Pool users.) 

This group has advocated many times to save their treasured facility from various threats. Several years ago—before the BUSD decided to tear down and rebuild the gym complex—Berkeleyans voted to spend some $3.4 million to upgrade and retrofit the pool, and many thought the problem might be solved. But it didn’t work out that way. The money could be spent only at the BHS location, and after years of back-and-forth with the City, the School Board finally said the building was coming down and the pool had to be relocated. 

The question was, where to? Turned out West Campus was the best choice. But to keep costs down—remember, the economy is in free-fall—the task force scrapped an earlier, more expensive option that would have pleased both Warm Poolers and the West Campus neighborhood, in favor of two that would repair the outdoor pool (though not open it until revenue is found) and dramatically reduce the size of the new Warm Pool.  

And there’s the rub. Warm Pool people know how important the size is, because much of the time the pool is open, there is both individual and group or class use, and the 1400 square foot proposal simply wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate both. 


Could there be a solution?  

I think the answer is yes. If the BUSD would offer a modest number of additional square feet to the north of the site, the new Warm Pool would get big enough to really work, as the current one does. So far, I’m told district representatives have said they would offer only the exact current footprint that two City pools occupy at the site, and this mandates a Warm Pool half the size that’s needed. The users are demoralized and many are not eager to work to pass such a bond. 

Though not on the Pools Task Force, I’ve attended many meetings and I’m writing this mainly because I believe we as a community owe those who need it so badly a warm pool that will serve their needs. Like curb cuts and accessible buildings, simply put, it’s a moral obligation. And it would be a fitting memorial to both Dona Spring and Fred Lupke (a wheelchair-bound activist and Warm Pool user who was struck and killed by a car a few years ago.)  

Of course, we know that the School Board’s main mission is to meet the needs of Berkeley youngsters, and that they’ve suffered tight budgets and many cuts ever since Proposition 13 passed in 1979. Yet I doubt such a small but vital offer would compromise their goals significantly—and it would make such a big difference for this crucial community service. 

That would leave the question of meeting the aquatic needs of the (underserved) West Campus neighborhood. I think it’s possible that the Warm Pool itself could do part of the job—especially swim lessons for young children, who might welcome the 92 degree temperature. And possibly more.  

Regarding opening the West Campus outdoor pool again, if Richmond has raised millions (public money, private donations, grants, etc.) to renovate and re-open their Plunge—and they have—surely Berkeleyans can tackle this problem.  

Yes, we’re facing hard times. But it is also a time of “Yes, we can.”  

I know I’m willing to be part of that solution. I hope you’ll join me.  


Donna Mickleson