Iowa City pools: City Park is seeping, rec center swimmers fight likely closure and Mercer may be heating up

A view of City Park pool from above, on June 15, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department has recommended closing the 58-year-old pool at Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center, and instead adding a warm water pool at Mercer Park Aquatic Center and Scanlon Gym, as part of its Gather Here Recreation Master Plan. The plan also includes a redesign of City Park pool, introducing new features to the seven decade-old facility.

The department presented the plan’s preliminary draft to the city council during its work session last week.

Director of Parks and Recreation Juli Seydell Johnson asked councilmembers for feedback regarding Iowa City aquatics, expansions of existing facilities, the creation of new satellite facilities and budget priorities.

According to Parks and Recreation, Robert A. Lee’s pool is quickly deteriorating. The cast iron and steel underground pool piping are rusted, which is staining the pool finish. The supply, gutter collection and main piping — as well as the main drain, the pool filters and the surge tank — need to be replaced. The pool’s temperature has been fluctuating, although recent repairs may have stabilized it.

Lee’s wading pool also has problems. It needs a separate supply line and its own chemical controller. Its main drain and main drain piping also need replacing. The center’s natatorium has rusted structural connections, water seepage in the lower levers and and doesn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

“Every time we call a plumber in, we have to cross our fingers. ‘Cause we don’t know if it’s going to be a one-hour or 10-day close,” Seydell Johnson said.

The estimated cost to repair the pool is $4.5 to 5 million. The department doesn’t know how much a full renovation would cost at the moment.

Lee’s pool doesn’t see much use, according to Seydell Johnson. In 2019, around 35 people used the pool on an average day. Last May, security cameras and card scans showed two or fewer lap swimmers at Lee each day.

“In the six years that I’ve had my office in that building, I’ve never seen that pool fully used, except when either the Coralville pool, or the University pool, or Mercer was closed,” Seydell Johnson said.

‘There’s no sense in any of that’: Swimmers advocate for Robert A. Lee’s pool

During the public comment period at the city council’s formal meeting immediately following the works session, many long-time swimmers at Lee, most of whom have been going to the center for decades, said the pool gets plenty of traffic between lap swimming and aquacise fitness.

One of those swimmers is Mark Cannon, a retired consultant worked on issues related to children with social and emotional difficulties. Cannon grew up in northeast Iowa but has lived in Iowa City off and on for about 40 years. For him, Iowa City is home. After moving here permanently in 1992, he started swimming at the University of Iowa Field House pool.

But for the past 22 years, he’s dived into the waters at Lee three or four times a week for lap swimming and aquacise. Cannon said closing the pool would diminish not just Lee, but also the whole of downtown.

“There’s no sense in any of that,” he said. “You cannot put a price tag on what it means to keep a center in a town, to keep the heart and soul, the gathering space of a downtown.”

Cannon, now 76-years-old, has loved swimming his entire life.

“When I was really young, I lived in a swimming pool. From the age of 4, I was thrown into the water for swimming lessons,” he said.

He remembers swimming every afternoon after high school and all summer long, working as a lifeguard. Cannon feels that swimming calms his mind. After 30 minutes of rigorous laps, his cares and concerns are washed away.

Because of the repair cost and usage, the Parks and Recreation department recommends closing the pool at Lee and repurposing the space. Parks and Recreation doesn’t have an estimate of the cost involved, since that would depends on what replaces the pool. Some community members have suggested an indoor skate park, for example.

“We want Robert A. Lee to be a really important part of the downtown atmosphere and used by families and young adults. We’re just not seeing that use in the swimming pool,” Seydell Johnson said.

“I hate to ever say we should close down a facility, but I got to tell you, this one gets such little use that I’m not sure it’s worth the investments. And we’ll do whichever because we love to see people swimming … As a director I have to say, is that our wisest course?”

The Robert A. Lee Recreation Center on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Cannon said that if the pool at Lee closes, he wouldn’t go to Mercer to swim. The 79-to-81-degree water—used for swim competitions—is too cold Cannon said, and makes his body tense up. The 83-to-85-degree water at Lee, when the temperature control is working properly, is more comfortable.

Cannon is not alone. At the city council meeting, all the speakers from the public argued against closing Lee’s pool. What would happen to deep water aerobics? Does reducing the number of pools meet Iowa City’s population growth? Where will people go when Mercer is closed for swim meets and other events?

“If [the Parks and Recreation department] had directly asked the public, ‘Do you want to keep Robert A. Lee?’ I think they would have found what they’re now finding,” Cannon said.

Other speakers at the council meeting said the limited hours at Lee may have affected it’s use. The pool is currently open for recreational and lap swimming from 6:15 to 9 a.m., and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6:15 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday, and 5 to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

The city council wants more public input

City councilmembers had a various reactions to the draft proposal, but all agreed there’s need for more public input before moving forward. Councilmember John Thomas stressed that Lee’s central location and the year-round access it provides to its pool makes it extremely valuable for the community.

“I’m very hesitant to give up Robert A. Lee,” Thomas said. “We need to reinvest in it and revisit the program. So in my view, the idea would be to simply commit to the location and rethink what that pool is.”

Councilmember Pauline Taylor said the pool may see more use if the city invested in repairs.

“I prefer trying to do what we can with Robert A. Lee,” she said. “If we were to modernize it and make those improvements … perhaps the use would go up.”

Councilmembers floated other ideas like building an outdoor and indoor pool at City Park or partnering with the University of Iowa to expand community usage of the natatorium at its Campus and Recreation Wellness Center off of Burlington Street.

“The staff with Robert A. Lee, their report on the usage, I think that is important,” said Mayor Bruce Teague. “But I also, in the same breath, think about the partnerships we talked about with non-city-owned facilities. The university is near, so that’s where my mind goes.”

Because City Park’s pool is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the potential closure of Lee’s would push recreational and exercise swimmers to Mercer for most of the year.

Several council members asked how parking and transit to Mercer compared to Lee. Johnson said that Mercer had adequate parking, except during swim meets, and that most groups, except lap swimmers at Lee, would rather navigate parking at Mercer. If the city offered free parking at Lee, there would never be parking available, she said. This was also disputed by people during public comments at the formal meeting.

A warm water pool and an indoor walking track at Mercer

To compensate for the anticipated increase in people using Mercer Parks and Recreation recommends building a warm water, medium to shallow depth pool for aqua fitness and swim lessons.

Other proposed changes include gender neutral bathrooms, showers and changing rooms; a hot tub; and improved accessible access for the pool. By moving aquatic programs to the new warm water pool, the department hopes to free up space in the main pool for recreation and lap swimming, Seydell Johnson said.

The proposed expansion for Mercer Park Aquatic Center.

The cost for these proposed changes at Mercer is estimated at $8.1 to 9 million. The estimate is nearly twice as much as the estimated repair cost for Lee’s pool.

Mercer is in good shape, Seydell Johnson said. The roofing will need resealing along the translucent panels and potential insulation repairs above the natatorium. There are some ADA problems to resolve, like steep pool stairs and high changing benches, but smaller problems, such as cracked tiles and rusted areas, have already been fixed.

The pool itself has some corrosion along the stainless steel gutter cover plate, perimeter gutter and other deck equipment. These need to be clean and polished, but otherwise, the pool is in good condition. The drat plan recommends closing Mercer’s outside wading pool, because it’s losing between 1” and 1.5” of water every day and has structural cracks.

“It gets a lot of use by ducks and occasionally people,” Seydell Johnson said. “I don’t even know if most people know there is a wading pool.”

The draft plan also calls for building an additional gymnasium at Mercer, with an indoor walking track that encircles the original gym, as well as a health and wellness space, two multi-purpose rooms and an interactive kids’ room for games and e-sports.

The proposed expansion for Scanlon Gym at Mercer Park.

City Park pool is hemorrhaging water

The City Park pool is in the worst condition of Iowa City’s public pools, according to Parks and Recreation. It’s losing approximately 30,000 gallons of water every day, the department said. There’s peeling paint and missing sealants. The gutter grating has deteriorated, and swimmers have cut themselves on it. The balance tank has cracks and is leaking. The building has vent damage and rotting wood.

“It takes pretty Herculean effort every Spring to get it reopened,” Johnson told the city council.

After being in service for 72 years, the pool would receive a complete renovation, including a new design as part of the Gather Here plan. The proposed changes include adding zero-depth entry — in which shallow end starts flush with deck before the pool floor gentle slopes to the deep end — to increase accessibility, a current channel with moving water, a three-lane lap pool, a plunge pool and gender-neutral restrooms, showers and lockers. The design stays within the current boundaries, and they don’t plan to remove trees from the park. Other features include multipurpose program space, solar panels and increased lap lane hours to compensate for the proposed closure of Lee’s pool

The proposed redesign for City Park pool.

The designs for City Park and Mercer, and the closure of pool at Robert A. Lee, are still in the proposal stage and no decision have been made yet.

“None of that has been etched in stone,” Seydell Johnson told the council during the work session. “Each one of those projects, if they were to move forward, would go through their own separate design phase with a whole other round of public input.”

Just as there was pushback against closing Lee’s pool during public comment period of the council’s forma meeting, the planned changes to City Park pool as came in for criticism from speakers. who either disapproved of the design entirely or said it needed some revision.

Councilmember Thomas expressed similar sentiments during the council’s work session discussion, arguing that the proposal changes stray too far from the original design.

“When I look at that preliminary drawing, that aesthetic character of the pool, which I kinda view as classic simplicity of a pool in a forest, isn’t represented in that proposal,” Thomas said.  Instead of this design, the city could offer a summer session transit pass to Coralville’s pool, which Thomas suggested could be called the “Aqua Bus.”

The city council will continue discussion about the future of aquatics and other recreation facilities at its next work session on Tuesday, July 12. A final draft of the Gather Here Recreation Master Plan is anticipated by early fall.

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