Op-ed: Why South Berkeley deserves its community swimming pool back

With the passage of the $100 million city infrastructure bond act, the city and its citizens must now turn their attention to how best to program the funds. At the very top of the list should be the rebuilding of the South Berkeley community pool on the grounds of Willard Middle School. The city closed the pool seven years ago, mothballed for a better time in the future.

That time is now.

For more than 40 years, the Willard Pool served south Berkeley as an essential center of education, recreation, and community life. Swimming is an essential life skill, and is critical to the wellness and health of Berkeley residents, including its youth. In fact, public community pools provide essential low-cost opportunities to build healthy lifestyles and healthy personal and family practices, contributing to reductions in obesity and negative health outcomes for residents.

Berkeley has committed to ensuring its young residents all learn how to swim as part of the their education experience. The south Berkeley pool was shuttered and ‘mothballed’ (filled with dirt) on the basis of a number of conflicting and contradictory reasons, including because “it was at the end of its useful life,” according to city officials. At the same time, the city maintained that the pool could be restored and re-opened to pool use in the future.

Lack of a community pool accessible to south Berkeley young people and residents remains a giant hole in providing for essential community educational, recreational, and health services and facilities. In addition to educational gaps, health, wellness, and recreation disparities continue in Berkeley between different groups and between different neighborhoods. The south Berkeley community requires fair and equitable treatment in the provision and maintenance of community park and recreation facilities, including restoration of its long-time community pool.

According to the Berkeley Citywide Pools Master Plan Report completed in 2009 by the Pools Task Force, “one of the guiding principles of the Task Force was to maintain the current distribution of neighborhood pools, especially in the underserved neighborhoods of west and south Berkeley. The Task Force supports the neighborhood pool system concept to provide ease of access and promote community use.”

A large portion of Berkeley’s young people live in South Berkeley, and in the past seven years, hundreds of young Berkeley people, and many older residents, in south Berkeley have been locked out of an affordable, close-by community swimming pool.

Fairness demands a south Berkeley community pool be included in a Bond Expenditure Plan. Now is the time to voice your support for a community pool for south Berkeley. Now is the time to let your councilmember know how you feel about having a community pool in south Berkeley.

While the future of Willard Pool has been written out of the City’s official Parks and Waterfront Department planning documents for the past few years, there remains strong community support for a south Berkeley pool. A ‘Fiends of the south Berkeley Pool,’ 501 c3 nonprofit organization, could be an essential partner with the City Council, the City of Berkeley, and the Berkeley Unified School District, to prepare final plans and complete construction of a pool for south Berkeley. The City of Berkeley and its residents should think creatively about the best and most cost-effective approach to re-establishing a community pool in south Berkeley.

A full suite of safe and modern neighborhood public parks, playgrounds, schoolyards, and community pools, are essential to the health of Berkeley’s young residents, as well as residents of all ages.

Make your voice heard. Let’s get the dirt out of the south Berkeley pool now. Community fairness requires that south Berkeley get its community pool back.

Community equity requires that south Berkeley get its community pool back.

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Marc Beyeler is a long-time Berkeley resident, a parent of a Berkeley schools' alumnus, and former member and co-chair of the Berkeley Unified School District’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), two of whose children swam and competed in the Willard Pool.