Iowa City’s plan to renovate two swimming pools and close another draws criticism

Iowa City is in the early stages of planning an overhaul of its three public swimming pools, which could include closing the indoor pool at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center and upgrading the other two.

Iowa City’s “Gather Here Recreation Master Plan,” led by consulting firm BerryDunn, found that the swimming pool at the Lee Recreation Center was in need of extensive and costly repairs. The study recommended closing this pool and adding a hot water pool and accessible hot tub to the Mercer Park Aquatic Center, while upgrading the municipal park pool.

Parks and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson said the plan aims to centralize the city’s indoor water activities in one location, improve the city’s recreational opportunities and improve accessibility. The Mercer Park Aquatic Center upgrade would cost between $8 million and $9 million, while the Lee Recreation Center indoor pool renovation would cost between $4.5 million and $5 million.

Seydell Johnson said it’s likely Mercer and Lee’s projects are related. She said the trade-off is that any funding to fix Lee would instead be used for upgrades at Mercer.

“If the public were willing to help pass a bond referendum or something that would pay for both, it could happen, but our recommendation would be one or the other,” she said. “I wouldn’t recommend (Lee) closing unless we did the expansion at Mercer.”

Seydell Johnson said there was no cost estimate yet for the municipal park pool upgrade, which could take place in 2025.

This master plan, which is only in draft form, aims to create a vision for the city‘s recreation programs, aquatic facilities, indoor recreation spaces, and outdoor sports and specialty areas over the the next 10 to 15 years.

The city and the consultancy firm have been soliciting community input since the fall, including an online poll on each proposal, which ends Saturday.

The Parks and Recreation Commission voted to approve this draft master plan on May 23, and the Iowa City Council will discuss, but not vote on, the master plan on June 21. Seydell Johnson said the plan could be finalized by the end of the summer with a City Council Vote after more intense design work based on feedback received from the public and elected officials.

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City park improvements would drastically change the 73-year-old outdoor pool

The proposed renovations to City Park‘s outdoor pool are an abrupt departure from the T-shaped pool with plunge lane that currently exists on the site.

The proposed change would include an extension of the pool footprint to make room for upgraded and additional amenities, such as an improved drop-off area, space for food trucks, lawn areas, additional shaded areas and “cabin” areas.

The pool would be split into three main areas – one for deep-water diving, plus three lap lanes and a large section with varying depths. This third area would include accessible entrances and exits, a current channel intended to mimic a lazy river, and a shallow recreation area with splashes.

A rendering of proposed changes to the City Park pool in Iowa City.

“Hopefully the atmosphere will be the same, but hopefully there will be a different mix of water activities so more people can actually enjoy the pool,” Seydell Johnson said.

Seydell Johnson said City Park Pool, at 73, is likely one of the oldest pools in operation in the Midwest. She said the city is still able to operate the pool safely, but she believes the facility is on “borrowed time.”

“Our staff have done a good job putting a lot of band-aids on a lot of issues for a number of years,” she said.

Seydell Johnson said if there was a major problem underground, it would cost the city a lot of money to make repairs. It is estimated that the pool loses 30,000 gallons of water per day.

Seydell Johnson said the feedback on the proposed changes to the City Park pool has been generally favorable and people like that the city is trying to keep the atmosphere there, not changing the city’s upper park. and not cutting down any of the large trees in the area.

Children play in the City Park swimming pool on June 12, 1949 in Iowa City, Iowa.

“We’ve received feedback that there aren’t enough lanes to cover, and I think that’s something we’ll be looking at in more detail as we go through the design process” , she said.

Currently, City Park Pool has about nine 50-meter lanes ending in a diving pit. But this redesign would reduce that to three lanes. If these changes are made in conjunction with the recommended changes at Mercer Park and Lee, the number of lap lanes available to recreational swimmers would decrease significantly.

Seydell Johnson said there will be less water use with City Park Pool, but also more space in the shallow and mid-range beach for families rather than swimmers.

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‘Location to me is everything’: Robert A. Lee pool users hope the city takes a different route

Seydell Johnson said the $4.5 million to $5 million needed to fix Lee would include filtration and pumping systems and fix water temperature issues. She said the 58-year-old pool is rapidly approaching the end of its natural lifespan.

“It’s a question of, do we keep trying to fix it? Do we put money here, or do we put that money in Mercer?” she says.

Marcia Goldsborough of Coralville and Marjie Caruth of Iowa City both used the deep end of the Lee Pool on Wednesday for water aerobics. Goldsborough said she has been coming to Lee for classes since 2006, but others she knows have been coming to the facility since the 1990s.

Marcia Goldsborough, left, of Coralville and Marjie Caruth of Iowa City swim in the deep end of the pool Wednesday at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City.  Both women said they would be upset if the city went ahead with a plan to close the pool.

Both women said they were against Lee’s proposed closure and worried about the overall goal of aquatics facilities, which they said would result in inadequate offers for Iowa City.

“There is too much demand to close RAL. The lanes of recovery will shrink, not expand,” Goldsborough said.

She pointed out that the proposed hot-water pool at Mercer Park would only be five feet deep, which isn’t enough for the deep-water aerobics classes that many older residents enjoy.

There would be no deep, warm water options as part of the city plan. The City Park pool is outdoors and weather dependent, while the Mercer Park pool is kept cooler as it is used by competitive swim teams.

“Mercer is five minutes from me, so I go to Mercer, but as I get older it’s just too cold. I like classes there…but it’s cold there,” Caruth said.

Both women said they were going to the City Park pool, and Golsborough said she was going to the Coralville pool as well as Lee.

Seydell Johnson said there have been requests for years to dedicate more space to aqua fitness classes and other adult wellness activities. She said adding the hot water pool to Mercer would solve that problem, while allowing for swimming lessons.

“Our vision for Parks and Rec is for every child in Iowa City to learn to swim. Having an easy-to-access hot pool for seniors and for swimming lessons would make this a truly unique urban facility,” said she declared.

Seydell Johnson said another consideration is that Mercer Park has free parking for the public, while Lee’s parking lot is at the Chauncey Swan ramp, where a fee is charged. Lee is located more centrally in Iowa City while Mercer Park is located on the southeast side of town.

“The negative is that we are losing access to a pool downtown. It’s an older pool that a lot of people have been using for a while and it’s hard to think about this change,” Seydell Johnson said. .

Seydell Johnson said there is no plan for pool space at Lee should the pool close, but the department will continue to comment if that happens.

People swim in the pool, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City, Iowa.

Kevin Simpson and Leashia Jones swam at Lee with their family on Wednesday and said they liked the pool’s amenities, including a separate kids’ area and a rock wall in the deep end of the pool. The two recently moved to Iowa City and frequent the pool with their children.

Jones said she would be sad if Lee was closed and would probably stop swimming at city pools because she doesn’t like the facilities at Mercer Park.

“I think if you do any renovations, it would be done here,” Simpson said. “It will overcrowd the pools.”

Jones and Simpson said they thought Lee was more accessible and more family-friendly than the Mercer Park facility.

“You can walk from here and get something to eat. For me, location is everything,” Simpson said. “I don’t know how many people will want to leave Mercer and walk to Wendy’s.”

Seydell Johnson said she would tell residents concerned about the changes that their input is exactly why the city is now releasing the draft recommendations.

“These are big, bold plans that we believe offer the best way forward for aquatic services to the community,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to hearing what the public has to say about this. Whether we go ahead with any or all of these plans depends on input.”

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George Shillcock is Press-Citizen’s local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at (515) 350-6307, [email protected] and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge

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