Robert Burnaby Park Pool. A hidden gem but how long will it last?
Weekends are often the time we here at CityCaucus.com like to wax about urban affairs, and the subject of outdoor pools wells up from fond memories of my youth. Outdoor pools in Metro Vancouver seem like an anachronism today, a product of a different time when cities would lavish certain neighbourhoods with special amenities like public outdoor pools.
One of my cinephile favourites is a dark and complex 1968 movie titled The Swimmer featuring a strapping Burt Lancaster. In the movie Ned Merrill (Lancaster) shows up on the pool deck of a tony New England home, wearing his swim suit, on the far side of the county where he lives. In these opening scenes there is an awkward exchange between Merrill and the homeowner, an old acquaintance.
Merrill comes up with a strange scheme to "swim" across the county back to his home through the pools that dot the backyards of friends and connections. At one time I thought of trying a similar Odyssey, finding a path of outdoor pools across the city back home to Vancouver, and writing about the experience. That will have to wait for another day, but I better not wait too long as I don't think we'll have many public outdoor pools left in years to come.
The simple reason is that they are not financially sustainable, nor are they as popular as their indoor versions.
My favourite outdoor pools are in the City of Burnaby, which has four (!) outdoor pools all built in more prosperous times. While I've not visited them all, I'm told they all share similar designs for the pool in terms of range of depths, decking and shower/change facilities. The pools are opened on the Victoria Day weekend, and closed after Labour Day, making them only available for one-third of the year and therefore very expensive to recoup costs on.
Perhaps my favourite outdoor pool is the hidden gem at Robert Burnaby Park. Never heard of this place? You're not alone. I was speaking to a City of Burnaby engineer recently and even he didn't know there was a pool there (he only knew of one outdoor pool in the city).
Robert Burnaby Park is a gorgeous but challenging plot of land built on a slope south of Highway 1 near the Edmonds Street community and close to the New Westminster border. There isn't a bus route that comes near the park for several blocks, making this park the choice of a few neighbours and car commuters.
When first built the neighbourhood surrounding Robert Burnaby Park had homes all under 2500 square feet, and families had two or more kids. Today these structures are being replaced by much larger homes 4000 sq ft or higher. Family birth rates are much lower. Many of the older homes are occupied by either retired couples, or by new Canadians less drawn to outdoor pools.
Without public transportation nor the density of the Baby Boom to support these pools, taxpayer dollars are quite literally being poured down the drain to support outdoor pools.
When I decided to pedal out to East Burnaby last week to swim in my favourite outdoor pool on a warm but slightly overcast day, I was shocked to see I had the pool all to myself. Public swimming had been open for over 30 minutes, yet the pool was empty. A cashier and two lifeguards were on-hand with no customers. By the time I got in for a dip a few more swimmers arrived, but in the back of my mind I could see the meter was running.
Speaking with some of the staff I learned of other challenges the pools face. Vandalism has been a frequent problem. Recently some dirt bag had connected the pool's protective chain-link fence to the bumper of his pickup truck tearing it down. Then they had the great idea of tossing all the destroyed fence into the pool. Nice, eh?
This not only happened at one but two of Burnaby's outdoor pool facilities, prompting the Park Board to replace the chain-link with costly galvanized steel fences.
Another challenge apparently has been finding reliable caretakers for the pools. Many pools and parks have small, inexpensive caretaker residences. In trade for the low rent that cities subsidize, it's expected that these tenants will be attentive to problems like vandalism and other emergencies. But that expectation is often disappointed.
Reportedly, when a chlorine leak at one of the pools forced an emergency clean-up operation, the resident in one of these cheap suites complained about the disruption of their sleep. In another park, two residents would let their dogs off-leash in the park despite a by-law against it. "It's a shocking sense of entitlement these folks get," commented the source. "But it's really hard to find responsible tenants for these buildings."
In Vancouver, Mount Pleasant Pool became a political lightning rod. Vision Vancouver Park Board candidates like Aaron Jasper campaigned on a promise that this pool would stay open. Those close to the Vancouver Park Board knew it was a promise that couldn't be kept, and Jasper and his bumbling Vision Park Board colleagues have since had to eat a lot of crow.
A source close to the Mount Pleasant pool operation told CityCaucus.com that the facility is in such a poor state of repair that the pool has to be filled up twice before its Spring opening to allow for seepage. The sentimental attachments of the immediate neighbourhood notwithstanding, there are no plans to keep this facility open thanks to the high cost to taxpayers of operations and repairs.
I love outdoor pools, and I hope that facilities like Central Park in Burnaby or Kits Pool will always be available. But no one is building outdoor pools anymore in Metro Vancouver, and as many of these facilities come close to their fiftieth birthday I can see that there will be more tough decisions by park boards on whether to keep these pools open.