Como Pool plan on way to City Hall

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A task force appointed by the city of St. Paul was close to an agreement in April on a design for replacing and upgrading Como Pool. They are expected to submit their recommendations to Parks and Recreation staff in May.

The pool will be on a list of capital improvement budget (CIB) proposals to be considered at a public hearing of the city’s CIB committee on May 26. Information and updates about the hearing will be posted at www.stpaul.gov/cib.

Demolition of the old pool is already under way. Parks spokesman Brad Meyer said his department hopes to secure CIB funding as part of the 2010 budget and open the new facility in 2011.

Sketches for the pool design as of mid-April showed a traditional pool with lap swim lanes and diving well, a children’s pool with zero-depth entry on one side and small slides on the other, and a “lazy river” feature that would involve running water and floaters to ride on. The new changing areas would include family locker rooms.

The plan assumes a rerouting of Jessamine Avenue, making room for parking near the pool on the south side. A concession stand on that side would also serve the recently upgraded soccer and softball fields, for which addition-al improvements are also planned.

Meyer stressed that the design concept is still just a plan and that nothing has yet been finalized. “Things may still need to change, depending on final review,” he said.

Controversy over the pool design has focused on how it can serve neighbors, attract enough fees to make it financially viable and avoid increasing congestion in Como Park.

Construction on the polar bear exhibit, on track to open next year and expected to attract large crowds and private events, has intensified neighbors’ worries about traffic and noise.

A shuttle is scheduled to begin running Memorial Day weekend. For updates, see www.comozooconservatory.org. City officials and neighbors hope the buses, circulating among remote parking areas and Como Park hotspots, will cut down the number of visitors hunting for parking spots on residential streets.

Reports in 2007 that the city’s chosen pool designer, USAquatics, was putting together a gaudy water park rang the first alarm among Como neighbors. According to Claudia Daly, who said she can see the pool site from her bedroom window, backyard conversations led to formation of the Como Alliance, a group of neighbors concerned about the pool and other recent develop-ment projects in Como Park.

After the pool closed permanently at the end of last summer, city officials acknowledged neighbors’ objections and assured them that the neighborhood would be included in the planning process. A task force was appointed to gather opinions from pool users, neighbors and other interested parties; consider financial feasibility; and submit a pool design that all could agree on.

Some observers, including Sen. Ellen Anderson, became excited about the possibility of a “natural pool,” using an environmentally friendly filtration system. City staff nixed that idea in January, saying that the city has very few pools, needs this one quickly and doesn’t have time to figure out the new regulations that would have to be put in place for a whole new approach. Meeting minutes note that perhaps landscaping could make the site more “green” without necessitating a more radical approach.

In an April interview, Anderson expressed her disappointment over the demise of the natural pool, which would have been a unique attraction and even a national breakthrough. “We had an opportunity to be a leader,” she said.

Anderson had proposed tapping the new arts-and-conservation sales tax fund, and she’s chair of the legislative committee that oversees those funds and could have helped make it happen. She said the new regulations could have been worked out, but “the city viewed it as an insurmountable problem.”

Anderson said she has fought for state investment in Como Park improvements but thought the original water park proposal was inappropriate.

“We’ve made the case that this is a regional attraction but that our park is being loved to death and we need regional support. It needs to be a regional park, but not at the expense of the neighborhood,” she said.

Art Oglesby lives on the eastern edge of the park and maintains a Web site for Como Alliance (comopark.us). He thinks the new design, while toned down from the water park concept, is still too elaborate. He’s unconvinced by the landscaping as a “green” contribution.

“The fact of the matter is, you’ve got a big motor pumping water for the lazy river,” he said. “We want a place to lie in the grass and soak up the sun.”

Susan Janda co-chaired the Como Alliance pool committee with Daly and was appointed last fall to the city’s task force by Council Member Lee Helgen as the representative for Ward 5. She said the material presented to the group convinced her that some upgrading of the pool was needed in order to make it less of a drain on the Parks Department budget.

For example, Janda said, one neighborhood priority for the pool was to have opportunities for lap swimming, but there weren’t enough swimmers showing up and paying the entrance fee to justify staffing the pool with lifeguards.

“If you get better attendance, you get better support” for those less-popular but important amenities, she said. She added that she expects fees will be “comparable to the other aquatics facilities (Oxford and Highland pools).”

Janda said parks staff were also concerned that teenagers are an underserved population. The hope is that they’ll be attracted to the lazy river and want to pay the fees to use it.

Parks spokesman Meyer added that the lazy river might have therapeutic value, especially for seniors, who could walk “upstream” for low-impact exercise.

Janda said that while she had come to support the pool design, including the lazy river, she remains uneasy about the project as a whole. She said the task force process satisfied her, as far as it went, but that its narrow scope left some important questions unanswered. Task force members were repeatedly told that their job was to design a pool, not solve problems for the park as a whole, she said.

If it’s to attract more visitors, Janda said, the pool will require more parking. But who’s to say that parking spaces near the pool will be available, on a busy summer day, for folks hoping to go swimming? And how many more acres of Como Park would have to be paved over in order to accommodate visitors to the new polar bear exhibit, plus an upgraded pool, plus other future amenities?

“I’d rather have people parking in front of my house than at the pool” if it can save some green space in the park, Janda said.

“We don’t see those things being properly linked up,” she said of the congestion problems among Como Park features. “That’s what we were trying to do in the task force process, and we were told, that’s not what we’re here to do.”

The Metropolitan Council routes state funding to regional parks but will not weigh in on designs for the pool and surrounding areas.

Council Member Helgen expressed confidence in the pool design process and said he looks forward to using the upgraded facility.

“Our goal is to get something that would be an asset to the neighborhood,” he said.

Noting that he has two children, ages 4 and 6, he added, “If I can bring my kids and they can enjoy it and they want to go there, that’s an asset.”

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