Warm water pool set for December closure

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series on the city budget.

Lee Nelson, a retired Rockridge area resident, stood in the shallow end of Berkeley’s warm water pool on a Wednesday evening, his thin hands gripped around a swim noodle, basking in the heated waters.

Nelson, 68, has been using the indoor warm pool at Berkeley High School three or four times a week since he was sent there by his health care provider about three months ago to help with a fracture in his back.

“When I get out of here, it’s like it’s a new life, because I do have constant pain, and it’s like it revitalizes me,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain it, but it helps me a great deal physically.”

He said the temperature of the water — which, at about 92 degrees Fahrenheit, creates a noticeably humid atmosphere in the old gym that houses the pool — mitigates his pain and allows him to exercise.

But the warm pool, which Nelson described as a “godsend” for its therapeutic benefits, is scheduled to close in December as the Berkeley Unified School District prepares to demolish the building in order to make room for more classrooms at the high school, marking the second time in about a year and a half that a city pool has closed.

According to Lew Jones, the director of facilities for the district, the old gym is also seismically unsafe, therefore furthering the need for the building’s demolition, which he said should occur in January. At that point, Berkeley will have reduced the number of pools it operates from four to just two in the span of about 18 months.

Yet the closure of the pool at Willard Middle School last year as well as the upcoming closure of the warm pool were not without significant efforts to save them.

At the Berkeley City Council’s June 28 meeting, attempts to include funding for the pools in the city budget were unsuccessful as the council sought to overcome a projected $12.2 million deficit in fiscal year 2012 and $13.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2013.

Seeking to provide some monetary relief for the city’s aging aquatic infrastructure, Councilmember Max Anderson had proposed allocating $40,000 in one-time expenditures to support the pools. Additionally, Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Darryl Moore had proposed the preparation of a report regarding therapeutic warm pools and recommendations for a new Berkeley warm pool as well as pre-bond planning for all of the city’s pools.

Neither effort was successful.

Furthermore, after failing to garner enough public support to remain open, the Willard Pool closed July 1, 2010 and has subsequently been filled with dirt.

None of this would be the case if a ballot measure to save the city’s pools had passed last summer.

In an election in June 2010, Measure C garnered just over 60 percent of the vote, falling short of the two-thirds majority required to pass. The measure would have incurred $22.5 million in bonds to pay for pool maintenance and aquatics programs and created a special tax to repay the bonds.

Bond funds would have been used to construct a new warm pool and renovate pools at Willard and West Campus Junior High School as well as construct an all-purpose pool at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

Still, efforts to save the warm pool may not be completely dead in the water.

“I think the closer we get to December, the more sense of impending doom will come upon the council and the community — this is a pretty significant resource that’s going to be yanked away,” Worthington said. “To me, it’s already a sense of urgency, because even though it was six months away (when the council adopted a budget), it’s clear to me that this is going to have a dramatic impact on hundreds of people.”

Additionally, Berkeley voters may see another pools measure appear before them on the November 2012 ballot, according to Rob Collier, co-chair of the Berkeley Pools Campaign, a grassroots group of city pool users and supporters. However, Collier said it is still too early to determine what that measure will look like.

Should that measure pass, the soonest a new warm pool would be open to the public would likely be the end of 2013 due to the amount of time required for planning and construction, Collier said.

“For many users, time is critical for them because they are in poor health — this is a lifeline for them,” he said. “For some of them, this is a life or death issue.”

According to William Rogers, the city’s director of parks and recreation, the warm pool sees about 13,000 visits per year and, as of an estimate made about three years ago, about 300 non-duplicated users per year. Rogers described those users as a mix of both Berkeley and non-Berkeley residents, perhaps due in part to the relatively low amount of warm pools in the area.

When Berkeley’s warm pool does close, however, users will not be left entirely without options.

The Downtown Berkeley YMCA, located just down the street from the high school, has a warm pool of its own. But transitioning there may not be a viable solution for some warm pool users like Nelson, who said the YMCA would be more expensive for him.

“I’m not suggesting that it’s a one-for-one substitution, but I am suggesting that for folks who need a warm pool, that is an option,” Rogers said.

Berkeley resident Sandra Gey, 69, who uses the warm pool about five times a week, said she is not as terrified of its closure as she had previously been because a hip replacement she underwent about 10 months ago has given her “something really good and solid” to stand on.

But she has yet to determine what she will do when the pool, which she said has made a “tremendous difference” in her mobility, closes.

“I haven’t figured it out,” Gey said. “I just keep hoping it won’t close — that I’ll continue to be able to swim here.”

J.D. Morris is an assistant news editor.