05-27-2024  9:07 am   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Saundra Sorensen
Published: 09 March 2022

Two years after the Columbia Pool was closed indefinitely, the state legislature passed two budget bills that secured $15 million in lottery bond funding for the proposed North Portland Aquatic Center.

carmen rubio introPortland Parks Commissioner Carmen RubioThe development last week was thanks in large part to the work of two Portland leaders. Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who serves as the city's parks commissioner, last year directed about $11.7 million from construction development fees into the ambitious aquatic center's initial design and public engagement phase. Rep. Travis Nelson (D-Portland) proposed the state allocate $33 million for the proposed indoor aquatic center, shortly after taking over former Rep. Tina Kotek’s seat.

“Travis Nelson was part of the group of community leaders that had worked to try to get the swimming pool open or find a new aquatic center, and he’s taken that passion and advocacy to being our state rep, and secured some funding,” Tyler Roppe, vice chair of the Kenton Neighborhood Association, told The Skanner.

travis nelson introRep. Travis Nelson (D-Portland)Nelson had told The Skanner he would like to see partners like Nike and Adidas step in to fill in any funding gaps. Nike wrote a letter to the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Capital Construction in support of the $33.3 million Nelson requested, stating "Portland Parks & Recreation is a critical partner in creating equitable and inclusive access to play in our local community."

"This project means a healthier, more robust community -- and lots of fun for generations of families to come -- and now, that's just a few years away," Commissioner Carmen Rubio said in a statement.

Portland Parks and Recreation has estimated the new aquatic center will cost approximately $50 million to build.

A Long Wait

Portland Parks and Recreation (PPR) has projected 70,000 people will be served by the aquatic center -- of them, 24% are BIPOC, and 14% live below the poverty line.

Portland Parks is considering three sites that sit central to the Portsmouth, Kenton, Arbor Lodge, Overlook and University Park neighborhoods: the Charles Jordan Community Center, Columbia Park, and Columbia Annex.

"All three can support a center large enough to serve the estimated 83,000 that will live in the area by 2035," Rubio testified last month.

But the current funding shortfall, and the projected eight-year project timeline, is frustrating community members and leaders who otherwise welcome the construction of such a large exercise and community facility.

“This is a very diverse area that’s largely working class; they can't easily access another facility,” Roppe said.

“That equity component is hard to ignore.

"There’s probably a lot of kids that just aren’t going to learn to swim because of this.” He added, “The pool being in the Portsmouth neighborhood, it’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods with some of the highest percentages of children on low- or no-cost lunches.”

There is data to show why a lack of aquatic resources and swim lessons is more than a mere inconvenience, but potentially fatal: A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found Black children between the ages of five and 19 were nearly six times more likely to drown than white children in that demographic.

Many pointed out that the community has already been without an indoor aquatic facility for two years, making the wait for an aquatic center in North Portland a full decade.

“Five years is at least a generation of elders and young people,” Portsmouth Neighborhood Association chair Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Weber told The Skanner. “If you think about an eight-year-old becoming an 18-year-old, that’s a big missed opportunity for not just swimming, but being safe around water…And I think there’s a real window with our mobility. You think about aging, going from 70 to 80, you can be a spry 80-year-old or a more fragile 80-year-old depending on what’s been going on for you. (10 years) really is a generation of elders and youth.”

Portsmouth neighborhood resident Gladys Hall described her more than 20 years as one of the “Columbia Pool Ladies,” a group of aging women and the occasional man who met regularly at Columbia Pool for morning group aquatic exercise classes, then walked to Po Shines Cafe De La Soul, where they would crowd around a table in groups of up to 12. She says that eventually, the cafe would charge those in her group a mere $1 for coffee or tea.

“Some people went five days a week,” Hall told The Skanner. “I went four days a week and took Wednesday off.”

Hall said that after back surgery, she found water workouts kept her from over-exertion.

“You can do some exercises in water that you can’t do on land at our age,” she said.

“It’s easier on the joints. There were several people that were either preparing for hip or knee replacement, they’d have to exercise to strengthen parts before the surgery, and they’d come back to exercise after the surgery. We’re missing that too.”

Some of the Columbia Pool Ladies now drive nearly five miles to the pool at Matt Dishman Community Center, and some even cross the Columbia to attend classes at Marshall Center Aquatics in Vancouver. Hall prefers not to drive more than necessary.

“The irritating thing is if you do look at our community, who goes to our schools, the elders, those are community members of color, they are people who have been underserved for generations, and the city says they look at things through an equity lens and then they do this,” Wheeler-Weber said.

Breaking Community

Until its closure, the busy Columbia Pool was used by groups as varied as kayakers, University of Portland students in the ROTC program, swim teams, and some who found it their only resource for physical therapy.

“We did some video interviews of those who use the pool, and one of them is parapelegic, and he talks about how Columbia Pool is one of the few places he can be active, because the temperature at the pool is warmer,” Wheeler-Weber said. “That was his one place where he could exercise, and so that loss is huge. But it also points out we need to fix this in the next facility, we need to have a therapy pool separate from the lanes, which is much colder.”

Itzel Cruz Megchun, assistant professor of design and innovation at the University of Portland, collaborated with her students to tackle the question of what the pool itself has meant to the community, producing "Imagining Thriving Communities: Documenting Stories About Columbia Pool” last year.

“Multiple groups of people use that space, and it has multiple meanings,” Megchun told The Skanner.

“So for someone it could be perhaps a place to socialize, but for others it will mean the only space where they feel they can belong or where they feel welcome, or where they have this democratic space, where they feel the same as the rest.”

This was especially important for populations more vulnerable to social isolation, like immigrants, refugees and the elderly, she said.

“In some of the interviews we had, we discovered that for refugees or immigrants with children but no other family, the space gives them a chance to create another community that takes care of their kids,” Megchun stated. “The moms especially supported each other because they work full-time or part-time, so each one takes care of the kids and provides a system of support beyond the spectrum of the swimming pool.”

The public nature of the facility meant the pool was an egalitarian space for many, and one where language barriers were drastically reduced.

“Something some people keep mentioning is that shared space, that swimming pool, actually helps some families economically,” Megchun said. “Their kids can work as lifeguards, and it becomes a cultural element, because we humans produce culture every single day through the interactions we have.”

Closing the pool meant breaking these multiple support network systems, Megchun said, and had a ripple effect on nearby businesses that would see much less traffic.

“Closing that pool shows it has had adverse effects on health and reduction of opportunities for a historically underrepresented population,” she added.

‘Not Either/Or’

While she looks forward to a new aquatic center that will be complete by the time she retires, Wheeler-Weber said she has been disappointed in the city’s lack of communication around the future of Columbia Pool.

“My personal ongoing ask for the city, and I think Travis has helped them get there, is to show some concrete progress toward anything and you will buy some community goodwill,” she said. “I’ve always said it’s very difficult to be a community advocate if you don’t know what you’re asking for. If you tell me it’s $2 million (to fix and fund) the pool over the next 10 years, I can do that math. If you tell me it’s $50 million for 10 years, that’s a different conversation.”

“I wish that the Columbia Pool would’ve had more robust maintenance so there wasn’t this gap,” Ginger Edwards, secretary of the Arbor Lodge Neighborhood Association and facilitator with the North Portland Parks Advisory Group, told The Skanner. “But some users who have talked to me said they would be glad to have it be an outdoor pool and have it still be available if the main issue is the roof, while the other aquatic center is being built.”

Wheeler-Weber has another suggestion: “Some of us want the two-pool solution.

"We feel there actually is room for two pools out on the peninsula.”

Architect Chris Forney agrees.

“As excited as I am for a new facility, based on the capacity reports I’ve read, we need both Columbia Pool and a North Portland aquatic center, not either-or,” Forney told The Skanner.

Forney is on a team of North Portland community members that reviewed Portland Parks’ own studies to assess the state of the Columbia Pool. The resulting report has been updated and was re-released last year.

“It started out mostly as a community-based effort to take inventory of the information available from Portland Parks, and synthesize that into, ‘Here’s the history of the pool and its maintenance,’ to really get to the bottom of this question of whether the pool is really towards the end of its useful life or not,” Forney said. “Because there are other facilities that are older than Columbia Pool that are maintained and are in good service order for delivery of programs.”

Columbia Pool was built in 1930 as an outdoor pool, and enclosed in 1973 with the addition of a wood beam dome roof and skylight. The group found that as recently as 10 years ago, the pool and its surrounding structure were listed as being in good condition.

“When we were looking at the proposed repairs in 2008, it was pretty much just the roof,” Forney said. “The pool itself was in good working order, there were some energy efficiency nice-to-haves around the pool pumps, there were some mechanical system upgrades to better manage the humidity for the longevity of the structure, so that would make sense to do.”

Forney takes issue with PPR’s implication the pool is a lost cause, calling it an “unreinforced masonry structure” in its most recent spring activities guide.

“We don’t even know if that’s true,” Forney said. “It’s not listed on the City of Portland’s list of unreinforced masonry buildings, and upon visual inspection, it appears to be board-formed concrete.”

Forney said 2018 estimates put the cost of repairing the roof at $2 million to $4 million.

“I would think that in today’s dollars, for less than $10 million you could have that facility back up and running in less than three years, and a real beneficial asset to the delivery of programs,” he said.

In the meantime, Hall said, “We all wish that we had our little pool back.”

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