After years of challenges, Belmont Pool could get final Coastal Commission approval

The Belmont Pool replacement project is on the verge of receiving its final approval from the California Coastal Commission, which is expected to vote on the project next week.

Replacing the pool has been a priority for the city since the original Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool closed in January 2013 due to seismic deficiencies. On Thursday, the approval process could come to a close, as the Coastal Commission is the final hurdle before the city can move on to the design phase.

The replacement project has changed dramatically since plans were initially released in 2016, and with those changes the projected cost was reduced by about $60 million to the current estimate of $85 million.

Despite facing two last-minute challenges, Long Beach City Manager Tom Modica says he’s happy the pool project has positive recommendations from both city and commission staff.

Modica said the current project has addressed all of the issues that were brought up by commissioners and the public, noting that the new 29-foot tall structure is less than half of the originally proposed project that included a 78-foot-tall translucent bubble.

BelmontPoolRendering

This rendering shows the original plans for the Belmont Beach and Aquatic Center. The design has changed considerably since the initial release in 2016.

What was once an indoor project is now primarily outside. More open space and green space has been integrated into its design. More parking has been added through re-striping, and even the sound and light levels created by the project have been adjusted to account for how they might impact birds in the area.

“We’ve addressed just about everything,” Modica said.

While the favorable recommendation from Coastal Commission staff is a major step forward toward funding and construction planning, the project still faces some final hurdles at the upcoming hearing. Two appeals to block the project will be heard along with the city’s proposal as residents opposed to the pool exhaust their options to prevent the new pool from being built.

Gordana Kajer, a resident of the district where the pool is located and party to one of the appeals, said that her group is relying on the Coastal Commission to enforce rules meant to protect the coast.

“We’re arguing that the city recognizes that the pool is going to flood during the life of the project but they argue that they can protect the project from sea level rise with sand,” Kajer said.

“At some point, sand resources are going to disappear, there’s going to be plenty of competition in Southern California for where beach replenishment sand comes from.”

Kajer is referencing the city’s current design, which was updated to place the structure on a plinth to keep the structure above the projected sea-level rise over the lifetime of the project.

Aside from the plinth that will elevate the pool 7 feet above the sand, the city is also expected to use a sand replenishment program, much like the one used to restore the beach along the Peninsula, to keep a buffer between the project and the water.

A previous design sat lower on the beach and was shown to be at risk of flooding. The new pool being at risk of sea level rise was part of a legal challenge won by the city in 2018.

Kajer said her group is hopeful that the commission will side with the people but noted that this was a “last ditch effort” because the group likely did not have the resources to challenge the project in court.

The group hopes Thursday’s vote results in the commission sending the city back to the drawing board and potentially pushing the project to a different site like the Elephant Lot.

City Councilman Roberto Uranga, who serves on the Coastal Commission, declined to comment on the upcoming hearing.

If the project is approved by the commission, the city would likely move into fund-finding mode, Modica said. While the projected cost has been whittled down from $145 million to $85 million, a funding gap of about $20 million still exists. The city has set aside $65 million in Tidelands Funds, which comes mostly from oil drilling revenue.

“That is a closable gap but we’re just going to need some creativity to get there,” Modica said.

Funding the pool project has been an issue for years, but the economic impacts of COVID-19 have made things worse. Building the pool would use Tidelands Funds, some of which are tied up as the city props up the Long Beach Convention Center and bond payments that were meant to be paid by Carnival Cruise line operations.

The downturn in tourism has resulted in the city having to pay to operate the Convention Center, which relies heavily on hotel taxes, for the first time in his 20 years with the city.

Once funding is secured, the pre-construction designs could take about a year with actual construction lasting about 18 months, Modica said. But he added the city would not move forward until its secured funding for the project.

The Coastal Commission meets at 9 a.m. on Feb. 11. The meeting can be streamed here.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify City Manager Tom Modica’s comments.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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