Outdoor pools tough to justify in Vancouver

Former Vision park board chair Aaron Jasper offers his insight to NPA-led board

The former chairman of the Vancouver park board has some advice for current commissioners and the NPA’s John Coupar: Outdoor pools are “money pits” best built beside indoor pools.

But that doesn’t mean don’t build them, said past two-term Vision commissioner Aaron Jasper.

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To keep pools financially afloat, or at least close to it, “You need people swimming 12 months of the year,” said Jasper, who called the Courier Monday before the park board debates funding new outdoor pools.

The park board will decide tonight if they will ask staff for options and funding sources for new outdoor pools in Vancouver.

“If you’re going to build a pool, you make sure you’re fitting in the most swims. Your priority should be on renewal of indoor facilities. If the park board is considering building outdoor pools, they should really be built in conjunction with community centres,” he said.

“At least with that as a concept, you have one changing room that is being used for indoor and outdoor, the same filtration system, same pumps, same cashiers and staff. That is what the park board staff said to us — if the park board wants to have outdoor pools, the most cost-effective way to do this is to have it linked with an indoor pool or, at minimum, with a facility.”

Jasper, who was first elected to the park board in 2008, pointed to the staff recommendations presented to the board in a 2011 aquatic review. A previous aquatic services review was published in 2001.

Both reviews suggested phasing out stand-alone outdoor pools, including at Mount Pleasant Park, because of their high costs and replacing them with mixed-use facilities that have indoor and outdoor pools, which staff said decreases the cost per swim because more people are swimming over the course of the year.

mt pleasant outdoor pool
Although the Mount Pleasant Pool was closed in 2009, the park was re-designed to include open green space for a possible replacement pool.

The Mount Pleasant pool cost the city $7.81 for each of the nearly 21,000 people who swam there in an average year. By comparison, the indoor pool at Killarney community centre cost the park board $4.39 per swim. The most expensive pool was Lord Byng at the Point Grey community centre where the cost per swim was $9.15.

The current board is planning another review to update the five-year-old plan.

The Mount Pleasant pool was first slated for closure in 2001, when staff suggested it not be replaced at the end of its lifespan. This recommendation was upheld by a COPE-led park board in 2002.

Over the next decade, public feedback overwhelmingly called to replace the old pool with a new one at the same location. Although the same park board requested $4 million from the city for the reinvigoration of Mount Pleasant Park and its pool, the 2006-08 capital plan set aside $1 million.

An additional $750,000 was put on the books for a splash park, but community groups, including the Society for Promotion of Outdoor Pools, strongly rejected that type of feature out of fear it meant a pool would never be built on the site.

Jasper said he learned the hard way that that committing to outdoor pools is a difficult campaign promise to keep. Just as the NPA did this most recent election — Vision once campaigned on the intent to keep the Mount Pleasant pool, which was located outside the community centre on West 16th Avenue several blocks west of Main Street.

Instead of safeguarding it, they ended up filling it in.

“We were not so hostile to the concept of outdoor pools but really took to heart staff’s recommendation,” said Jasper.

When it turned out the building was little more than a stack of bricks, the pool beside it was deemed too expensive to maintain. The community centre moved to 1 Kingsway, and the pool became a grassy lawn and skate park.

“I understand that promises were made, but we had the same deliberation. We agonized over the same things,” he said. “How do we provide those opportunities but do it in a way that is fiscally responsible?

“The day of the standalone neighbourhood pool can’t be justified form a financial perspective.

“An outdoor pool would be great, but we also have to balance the operating costs.”

He also said it was a false comparison to look at the numbers of outdoor pools in other major Canadian cities, as Coupar did in the motion he brings to park board commissioners tonight. “The best apples-to-apples comparison is what other municipalities are doing locally. I don’t care what they are doing in Calgary and Toronto,” said Jasper, who said he and Couper are friends and had a good working relationship when they were both commissioners.

Jasper also questioned the ability of the park board to shift funding and scuttle other projects for the sake of new pools.

“Who prioritizes which projects don’t get done so these projects get built? All dollars are accounted for. What projects get bumped off the list?

“As I would put the case,” advised Jasper, “this board should prioritize money from the next capital plan. Maybe it doesn’t happen in four years, but maybe it happens in five or six.

“I understand the pressure John is under, but if they do it smart, they can do it in a way that is fiscally responsible and better serves parts of the city such as South Vancouver and Marpole.”

mstewart@vancourier.com

@MHStewart

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