Dear members of the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council,
We write to express our concern that the proposed Robert A. Lee (RAL) pool closure will leave Iowa Citians, regardless of age, physical ability, mode of transportation, socio-economic status, or health/wellness needs, without an accessible and reasonable option for aquatic activities. Having served our community in versatile and beneficial ways for 58 years, the RAL pool is in the heart of—and critical to—our community. In fact, survey’s conducted by BerryDunn, the consulting firm the Iowa City Department of Parks and Recreation hired to work on its Gather Here Recreation Master Plan, show a majority of respondents (70%) rated RAL as the City’s top recreational facility, and 56% indicate aquatics as the most important recreation activity. Why close the RAL pool and reduce opportunities? We strongly recommend RAL’s renovation and oppose adding a warm water pool at Mercer, which would provide fewer aquatics opportunities at more than twice the cost.
Why pay more for less?
In an email sent May 23, 2022, Parks and Recreation Director Julie Seydell Johnson states that funds “to repair and upgrade the Robert A. Lee pool…would be better used in a new addition at Mercer,” but the estimate provided by BerryDunn suggests the opposite. The Recreation Master Plan estimates that renovations of RAL’s pool and locker rooms would be between $4.5 and $5.04 million. Renovations at Mercer Aquatic Center—which include but are not limited to adding a warm water pool to “replace” the RAL pool—are estimated between $8.14 to $9.05 million. No estimate is provided for demolition and repurposing of the RAL pool space, surely a significant amount. The email also states the RAL pool “would remain in operation until the new pool was open unless a costly repair forced closure sooner.” With roughly half the funds available to renovate RAL pool in the current repair budget, we find this decision unacceptable, a dereliction of duties to maintain public facilities, and a potential excuse to close the RAL pool without input from the public.
In addition, during their presentations to the Commission and at the RAL open house, BerryDunn stated “…the [RAL] pool is built on top of a bomb shelter,” which, they suggested, could result in additional costs if renovations are attempted. This is simply untrue. Both the original architect Roland Wehner and the blueprints housed at the State Historical Society confirm that neither the RAL pool nor any other part of the RAL structure is in fact built over a bomb shelter. It appears that BerryDunn’s recommendation has been made with faulty data and calls into question the information presented by the firm.
Besides costing more, the proposed plan and closure of RAL would affect all aquatics users in Iowa City by limiting opportunities and leading to potential overcrowding at Mercer. BerryDunn’s brief verbal descriptions and illustration of the proposed warm water pool, with no actual physical specifications, suggest that this addition would provide an inadequate space for the versatile activities currently available at RAL. The “Mercer Park Pool Renovation & Addition” illustration appears to depict a shallow pool the width of approximately three lanes, none of which could be used for lap swimming or deep-water aquatics/activities if there is a zero entry. RAL pool users do so for a variety of reasons, and the destruction of the facility would disadvantage a wide swath of the Iowa City community, from toddlers to seniors. Traditional swimming pools comprised mainly of lap swimming lanes, such as RAL, are the most versatile design to accommodate all users of aquatic facilities. The proposed Recreation Master Plan will reduce the overall number of lanes from 30 to 19 and eliminate the wading pool and the deep-water area at RAL.
Currently, the RAL pool simultaneously accommodates the following warm water (83-85 degrees) services in the various depths of the RAL pool:
• Aquacise and water walking
• Physical therapy and aquatic rehabilitation
• Deep water aquacise
• Lap swimming (six lanes)
• Swim lessons
• Toddler activities in the shallow pool
• Swim lesson dive instruction and a climbing wall in the deep end
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Simply put, RAL’s pool already provides what people want and actively use.
Closure of the RAL pool would also limit access for swim lessons, lap swimming, and other aquatic activities during high-school swim meets and when maintenance closes Mercer pool. Likewise, the increase in traffic and congestion due to traffic around South East Junior High School during the school year and when Mercer Park outdoor facilities are used during summer months limits access to Mercer pool. A far more equitable and environmentally sound solution would be to make needed repairs to the RAL pool.
Equity: RAL’s central location
The RAL Recreation Center is in the heart of the Iowa City community, the site chosen by Mr. Robert A. Lee because of its central location, after an older community center burned. The building is accessible to all ages and compatible with the city’s goal of providing housing and services downtown that promote a walkable, urban community where non-students want to live. The City of Iowa City invests in downtown Iowa City (Summer of the Arts, ICPL, Senior Center) and offers incentives to developers to build downtown housing that includes public benefit (Bread Garden, Riverside Theatre, Filmscene). In short, the RAL pool deserves the same investment to further enhance family-friendly and fitness offerings in downtown Iowa City.
Furthermore, transportation to and parking at RAL is easily accessible and environmentally friendly. Downtown does not require a bus transfer for riders, as Mercer’s location does, and the RAL pool’s site serves Iowa Citians from north, south, east, and west. Another advantage of RAL is the easily accessible, city-owned parking lot adjacent to the facility. Sixty- to ninety-minute free parking could easily be implemented into Parks and Rec programming (i.e., as part of the swimming pass) just as the City provides one-hour free parking at the downtown ramps.
Finally, RAL’s centralized, intimate facility pool provides the opportunity for new friendships, networks with diverse individuals, long-term relationships, and intergenerational bonding not easily found elsewhere. Less quantifiable than easily quoted data, this elusive quality seems less evident at Mercer pool, for many users, and another reason for the passionate response to the proposed closure of the RAL pool.
Keeping the downtown RAL pool is the least expensive, most equitable and sustainable option for users of all Iowa City aquatic facilities. The Parks and Rec Master Plan states that “[p]aramount to the project was the Department’s desire to listen and respond to the community’s needs,” but we are concerned this has not been the case. Despite the inconvenient and limited RAL pool hours imposed by administrators this spring (weekdays 6:15-9:00 a.m. and 11:00-1:00 p.m.), users have remained committed to the facility. Iowa City already has what the community needs in a warm water indoor pool at RAL. Please keep, repair, and renovate this beautiful facility.
Monique Di Carlo
Soni Hansen Harney
Joanne P. Lynch
Monica Clancy Poore
Mara Rosenberg Goodvin
Ellen Van Laere
Melba Jo Van Meter