Since the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool was deemed seismically unsafe and closed in 2013, the replacement project has been a hot-button issue for some residents of the area. Now, at its March 2 meeting, the Long Beach Planning Commission is expected to certify the environmental impact report (EIR) and approve the site plan review, conditional use permit, standards variance and local coastal development permit.
Jeff Miller, a resident of Belmont Shore, and Gordana Kajer, a resident of Belmont Heights, are among those who have voiced concerns about the project, ranging from its intended use to the cost. Even those in favor of the proposed project admit the $103 million price tag seems a bit excessive. However, those who oppose the project cite the cost as a reason to stop it in its tracks.
Looking south from above Olympic Plaza. (Rendering courtesy of the City of Long Beach)
“Why [is the city] moving forward and asking for approval of a project with undefined costs?” Miller said. “That figure of $103 million, they admit that’s not a true cost. They’ve stated publicly that the cost will not be known until after the city council gives approval and an actual construction design is put together and submitted.”
Tom Modica, assistant city manager for Long Beach, admitted that the estimate made in 2014 is subject to change further along in the process. He explained this is because through the entitlement process, with the planning commission, the coastal commission and appeals, the design could be altered, which would naturally change the cost for better or worse. For this reason, a true projection of cost cannot be determined until a design is approved and finalized.
The proposed budget encompasses the demolition of the old building, planning and design of the new facility, permitting, construction management and actual construction cost, according to Modica. He said that little more than $10 million has been spent so far on the demolition and preliminary designs.
A major source of concern for both Kajer and Miller is that the city’s Tidelands Operations Fund is funding the project, which is in large part tied to oil revenue generated by Tidelands. When the project was first proposed with its $103 million budget, oil prices were up and budgeted as such, Modica explained. However, when oil prices crashed, Tidelands monies took a hit and pool funding came into question.
“Of the $103 million project budget, we have $60 million that was set aside in cash,” Modica said. “That was done through a prioritization of Tidelands dollars back in 2016. In the [fiscal year] ’17 budget, the city added an additional $1.5 million in [Tidelands] funding toward the project. So approximately $61.5 million is funded of the $103 million.”
View from the beach. (Rendering courtesy of the City of Long Beach)
To make up the roughly $42 million discrepancy, Modica said the city is looking at various strategies, including regional, state and federal grants and available county park money, as well as private fundraising and donations.
“This pool has been such a special facility in the hearts and minds of the aquatics community and has produced some world-class swimmers and also some very successful people,” Modica said. “We believe that there’s an opportunity to ask them to donate back to the creation of a new facility.”
Last week, the city began a search for a fundraising consultant to assist in the process. Bids for the contract are due by Friday, April 7, and can be made by contacting Regina Benavides at 562/570-7062 or email@example.com.
When asked if there is a scenario in which General Fund money would be used for the project, Modica said that none has been allocated for the pool to date and that “future funding sources would be something the city council would decide.”
Miller explained that the problem with the project being funded by Tidelands funds is that there are more than $300 million in Tidelands projects that the city has presented and prioritized. By allocating more than two-thirds of current available funds to the pool, many projects will be postponed. Miller and Kajer said other Tidelands projects are more important than the pool.
Modica confirmed that available Tidelands funds at the time projects were prioritized totaled roughly $99 million. However, he pointed out that the initial $60 million was set aside for the pool prior to city staff being asked to prioritize Tidelands projects. According to Modica, when the list was prioritized, no money was added or taken away from pool funds and remaining funds were allocated to other projects accordingly.
Some of the current projects still being funded by Tidelands money include concession improvements along the beach, which were completely unfunded before the prioritization, and the Naples seawall, in addition to a number of bathroom, lighting and safety projects. Modica admitted that lower-priority projects would be held off until funds are available but that they would be completed over time.
Beyond the initial cost of the project, Miller said he is concerned with the ongoing maintenance and operational costs of the facility.
“The maintenance and operational costs of a facility like this are not defined in the entire design process,” Miller said. “Those costs were never really brought to light. Those costs are very high because of the nature of the competitive pool.”
Looking west from the indoor pool spectator seating. (Rendering courtesy of the City of Long Beach)
However, Modica explained that there has been an initial analysis as part of the fiscal guidelines of the project, though it is subject to change for the same reasons that the total project cost might. After revenue from special events and other uses is taken into consideration, the net maintenance cost of the pool is about $1.3 million annually and would be factored into the Tidelands budget, according to Modica.
Miller said that he believes it is important to keep Long Beach vibrant, up-to-date and attractive but that a beachside pool is not the best use of Tidelands funds. Also, aside from the cost, Miller and Kajer said the project has other issues that they think are red flags.
“I’m a supporter of the whole idea of Long Beach as an aquatic capital. That’s a fine notion,” Miller said. “I’d like to see it done so that it works, though. My concern over the economics of this is that it would not work in that location in Belmont Shore. It’s not an accessible location for the traffic and the parking requirements that spectators would need.”
Miller and Kajer contend that there is not enough parking for spectators and visitors of the pool when combined with beachgoers, the new Olympix Fitness gym, pier and pier-adjacent businesses and residents. Additionally, Miller said the EIR and city officials deny that parking could pose a problem, completely ignoring what he calls the “ground truth” of the full lots on a hot summer day.
Lucy Johnson, a boardmember of the Aquatic Capital of America Foundation (ACA), disagrees, saying the more than 1,000 spaces of surrounding parking have never been an issue in the nearly 50 years she has used the site’s pool.
“Even for a big event like the national championships, the last third of that lot was never full. Teams come in a bus or a van. [Parking] is absolutely not an issue,” Johnson said. “We’ve had two Olympic trials, two men’s NCAA championships, high school championships every year, 26 out of the first 29 water polo championships. And we’ve never had a problem.”
Johnson added that the previous pool, which opened in 1968, had seating for upwards of 2,400 spectators, while the proposed project only contains seating for 1,250. She said that the city is requiring an approved parking plan, including a person directing traffic, for any event that expects 450 or more spectators – a requirement Johnson called absurd.
In terms of seating, those for and against the project take issue. Richard Foster, president of the Aquatics Capital of America Foundation Board, said the seating is not enough, pointing out that larger national events and many international events require more seating. He said this would lead to events opting for other venues such as Federal Way Aquatic Center in Washington or Indiana University, which seat 2,500 and 4,500, respectively.
Modica added that space for temporary seating is available for up to 3,000 spectators at the outdoor pool, should an event require more space. This seating would be rented, and not owned, by the city.
Miller and Kajer, on the other hand, contend that the proposed spectator seating implies the facility is not a municipal pool being built for use by residents but rather as an event space.
“When you talk about this aquatic center and what the city might hope to get from it in terms of increased tax revenue, it means that fully a third of the year, in terms of days, the pool [is] unavailable for public use,” Kajer said. “All of the things that make this a destination for these types of events means that the public can’t use it for a third of the year.”
Kajer is referring to a city document that identified potential events at the pool and the total number of days those events would utilize the facility. Between swimming, diving and water polo events at various levels of competition, the city identified 135 days of potential events.
Johnson and Foster pointed out that, first and foremost, those numbers are speculative and would most likely be less, as the city would not be awarded every event. However, more importantly, based on the design of the proposed complex, the public would still be able to use the facility during events.
Johnson noted that the proposed facility includes two 50-meter pools, a separate diving well, a recreational pool, a therapy teaching pool, a small spa near the diving well and a larger spa for the general public – a total of seven bodies of water.
“With having the two pools, they won’t have to close both pools [for events]. They can still have one for recreation, which serves our public much better,” Johnson said.
With regard to the location of the pool, the EIR identified three other locations that could accommodate the project, including Harry Bridges Memorial Park, a lot near the convention center and a lot on Queen Mary property. Kajer noted that each of these locations are along the coast, and the EIR neglected other neighborhoods for the sole purpose of being able to maintain use of Tidelands funds.
Kajer believes that to refer to Long Beach as the “Aquatics Capital of America,” the city must invest in pools around the city. She pointed out that while there are additional public pools, the city only has three municipal pools, including the temporary Belmont Pool, the King Park Pool and the Silverado Park Pool. Kajer explained that these three sites are not enough to service the various communities throughout the city.
On the flip side, Foster and Johnson pointed out that the project has always been portrayed as a revitalization of the former pool. As a revitalization project, Johnson said it would stand to reason that it would be located on or near the original site. Also, Johnson said the beach location played a big role in attracting events in the past.
View from the southeast outdoor pool deck. (Rendering courtesy of the City of Long Beach)
As for Kajer’s assertion that other communities would be better served with a pool, Johnson noted that the city already owns the temporary pool in Belmont.
“We have a temporary pool sitting in the parking lot right now,” Johnson said. “I’m talking to [Vice Mayor/9th District Councilmember] Rex Richardson and [8th District Councilmember] Al Austin and saying that I will do everything in my power to move [the temporary pool] to one of those districts.”
Kajer and Miller also question the process of stakeholder and community outreach to determine the residential community’s wants and needs versus the aquatics community’s wants and needs.
“There was a stakeholder committee set up to guide the development process. There [was] only one representative on that stakeholder committee that represents residents,” Miller said. “The majority of the stakeholders [were] people who have an economic interest in swimming and diving and those events. That was the driving committee. The economics of it lead from that, and the beach location is the costliest factor.”
Johnson was a member of the committee, which was the result of then-Councilmember Gary DeLong’s request to gain input from stakeholders. Committee members were selected by the city manager, and they held three meetings that focused solely on the needs and wants of stakeholders, according to Modica. The committee did not play a role in site location or design, but rather in specific elements such as the number and types of bodies of water and of seating that would accommodate residents and events, Modica explained.
Johnson also explained that a number of community meetings were held, including a meeting at the SeaPort Marina Hotel hosted by Suzie Price that asked for public input regarding design elements and the wants of residents. Several hundred community members attended the meeting, according to Johnson. Additionally, Johnson pointed out that the EIR was circulated and was open to public comment, which was also taken into consideration.
“Most of the people support the project,” Johnson said. “They use it, they understand it and they want to see something there. They understand the history and the importance of the project to the city.”
According to Modica, if the project keeps to its current schedule and attains full funding, construction is anticipated to begin in October 2018, with an 18-month build-out period. However, Kajer said she and Miller intend to seek the advice of legal counsel if the project is approved and taken to city council, which could lead to a formal appeal.