Philly's aging, beloved pools need $100 million in repairs
About 80 percent of the fleet needs some kind of work and four pools, including Bridesburg, need a total overhaul. The department puts the estimated cost of needed repairs for all pools at about $100 million.
Bridesburg's pool almost didn't open this year.
The basin had cracks in five different places and valves needed replacing. But rather than close for long-term repairs, derailing a swim team's season and the annual swim show, a tradition for 50-plus years, the city scrambled — with concrete, patches, and a paint job — to open in time for summer.
"This community would die without the pool," said Jackie DeSanctis, 79, who has worked at the pool and recreation center since she was 21 years old, first as a recreation director and now as a volunteer. "They were having a heart attack when they said it might close. It's a big part of the community."
Bridesburg Recreation Center, a brick complex dating back to 1956, is home to one of the most popular pools in the city. The center has 250 kids enrolled in swim lessons this summer, a day camp, a swim team, and one of the only remaining swim shows left in the city.
But it's also one of the oldest pools in the city's fleet of 70 — the most per capita of any big city, said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. The city spends about $2 million annually to get its aging pools ready to open each summer. This summer all but one, a pool in Fishtown, are open.
"Many are at the end of their useful life," Lovell said.
She went on to commend the Parks and Recreation staff: "These guys pull rabbits out of their hats to get the pools up and running, whatever they can do, just to squeeze one more year of life out of these pools."
About 80 percent of the fleet needs some kind of work, and four pools, including Bridesburg, need a total overhaul. The department puts the estimated cost of needed repairs for all pools at $100 million.
Pools are eligible for the city's $500 million Rebuild initiative, which will target the renovation of libraries, parks, and recreation centers over the next six or more years. Lovell said the department will consider everything attached to a recreation center, including the state of its pool, in deciding on projects, but it's unlikely every pool will be fixed through Rebuild.
There are no plans to downsize the number of pools in the city, a suggestion that has sparked outrage in communities before.
"People love their pools … and I think there's a lot of value in pools for kids who are never going to get to a private swim club, Dorney Park, or Disney World," Lovell said. "Having that experience is really important. You can't learn how to swim at a spray park."
All city pools are supposed to provide free swim lessons to children, and about 30 have swim teams.
At Bridesburg on Friday, the day started out cool and rainy, but about 70 kids still showed up to swim. By the time the sun had come out in the afternoon, the pool was full of day campers and visitors.
Attendance at city pools has risen citywide — up from about 830,000 visitors in 2015 to about 900,000 last year, though weather is a factor.
Bridesburg is old-school, with concrete bleachers for belongings and no towels or chairs allowed on the pool deck. Lately, some pools are softening the rules, adding a more swim club-like feel.
Last summer, the city spent $80,000 on a program it dubbed SwimPhilly to spruce up five city pools by adding umbrellas, chairs, palm trees, and other tropical decor. The same items are being reused this year at the pools at Lee Cultural Center in West Philadelphia, Lawncrest Recreation Center in the Northeast, Pleasant Playground in Mount Airy, O'Connor Pool in Markward Playground, and the pool at Francisville playground.
Neighbors near Graduate Hospital this year raised $16,000 to bring a similar transformation to the pool at Marian Anderson Recreation Center. Other communities, like Northern Liberties, have expressed an interest in fund-raising to follow suit.
Lovell said she's glad communities want to get involved in "tricking out" their pools, but doesn't want to create a situation where poorer neighborhoods get left out. The city intentionally picked changing neighborhoods for the upgrades they funded, according to Lovell, as a way to build community.
"You're seeing the capacity to raise that kind of money in more affluent neighborhoods, and that's a little painful for me because we were really intentional to do [upgrades] in neighborhoods that were diverse from a socioeconomic standpoint," Lovell said. "We're going to try to lobby to raise funds on our own to make sure we can keep a real sense of equity."
At Bridesburg on Friday afternoon, Recreation Director John McBride proudly showed off the freshly painted pool. It looked deceivingly good, but the cracks would be back, he said. The city plans to replace the pool, a project that will cost upwards of $1.8 million, after it closes this summer.
"The face-lift they gave it, my hat is off to them," McBride said. "But the community does deserve a brand-new pool. They know it's coming; it's a matter of when that first shovel strikes the ground."