The Belmont Pool replacement project can move forward after winning approval from the California Coastal Commission Thursday, closing a seven-year process that started after the closure of the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in 2013.
Commissioners voted 10-1 to approve amendments to the city’s local coastal plan and approved a permit that will allow the city to begin securing the $85 million it expects it will cost to construct the pool, and find a firm to build it. But first the city will have to fine-tune the design of the pool, which will require approval from both the City Council and the commission for a final building permit, something that’s expected to happen next year.
The city currently has about $61.5 million in Tidelands Funds allocated for the project, but will have to work to close the roughly $20 million funding gap.
While cost will likely be one of the last remaining barriers for the project, equitable access and how the city will ensure all residents of the city can enjoy the new pool complex still hangs over the project.
Many commissioners expressed concerns that the pool is located in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. The city will have to prove that it can accommodate communities outside the southeast area, one of the key factors that the Coastal Commission considers with any project along the coast.
City Manager Tom Modica outlined the city’s plans to use shuttle services to transport children from 11 parks in disadvantaged areas in the city to the pool; the city will also reduce rates for their entry and create programs for youth.
“If you want to go to the Belmont pool, you can walk to your neighborhood park, take that direct connection to the Belmont pool and be returned to your neighborhood,” Modica said.
But some commissioners questioned whether that would be enough.
“You’re not going to bake a whole cake, put all the ingredients in and sprinkle a little sugar on top,” Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said.
Commissioner Shelley Luce, the only member of the commission that opposed the project, criticized the project for continuing the problem of investing large sums of public money into wealthy communities.
The commission asked that the city return to the commission with more concrete plans for how it would make sure the project is accessible to all members of the public. This request will have to be approved by the whole commission, likely at the same time that it considers the city’s building permit for the pool in 2022.
City officials are hopeful the project can be completed within the next few years and that it will serve as an asset to the city’s beaches.
“I think it will be something that will bring people to the coast,” Mayor Robert Garcia said during the meeting. “We want to bring as many people as possible to our amazing coastline, and I think this project can do that.”
A previous version of the pool replacement project included a 78-foot-tall translucent dome that covered an indoor pool complex. That project was rejected in part because of its height—the original pool building was 60 feet tall—and because of its orientation on the shore that would have made it vulnerable to flooding brought on by projected sea-level rise.
The new pool complex will largely sit on a 7-foot plinth that will help raise it above future storm surges. The new design also incorporated a family play area with a zip-line and waterfalls as well as 92,000 square feet of green space, some of which would serve as a buffer between the project and the beach.
However, commission staff pointed out that the city’s plan only accounts for a 5.7-foot sea level rise scenario when projections have put that figure at at least one foot higher by 2100. A staff report said that this could result in the plinth serving as an island if sea levels were to ever rise that high.
“It’s still possible the beach could be reduced [by wave activity] and the pool could impact access to the beach,” said Dani Ziff, a coastal program analyst, who suggested a modified beach path could help ensure access to the shoreline.
A sand replenishment program like the one the city uses to protect the shoreline on the Peninsula could be a solution to future erosion.
The project has been held up for a number of years, including challenges for a litany of reasons including the project’s impacts on birds, trees, parking it being susceptible to sea-level rise, possible accessibility issues for all city residents and the height of the pool’s structures blocking views of the beach.
Two groups of residents filed separate appeals to the project and argued that the the project should be located somewhere else, suggesting sites like the Elephant Lot near the convention center Downtown.
“The first principal for development on the beach is that it must be a coastal dependent activity,” said Jeff Miller, one of the appellants. “Swimming and diving is not coastal dependent.”
Despite the city working to address the issues over the years, some thought that the changes to the proposed plans were still not enough to deal with climate change, and said some changes created new problems.
“Moving the project north won’t resolve sea-level nor seismic problems and it creates loss of street parking,” said Anne Cantrell, a member of a local activist group Citizens About Responsible Planning.
The original Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool was shuttered in 2013 and demolished the following year because of seismic deficiencies.
[Editors note: the original version of this story said the city has set aside $65 million for the pool project, it has actually set aside $61.5 million.]