A rendering of the proposed pool project that was certified and now awaits judgement from the California Coastal Commission.
The Belmont Pool replacement project moved one step closer toward completion last night after the Long Beach City Council voted to deny several challenges to the environmental impact report (EIR) on grounds that it would negatively impact local wildlife, it did not take into account the impacts of sea level rise and that the project served to only benefit one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
After over five hours of deliberation, the council voted 6-2 to deny the appeals and certify the EIR along with other recommendations previously approved by the city’s planning commission.
Council members Lena Gonzalez and Roberto Uranga were the two dissenting votes but were joined by Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce (absent, but had a statement read on her behalf) and Vice Mayor Rex Richardson who both expressed concerns over the process that led to last night’s vote.
Richardson pressed city staff to address the manner in which public meetings were held during the vetting process of the pool project, namely which districts the meetings were held in. The pool, like the civic center and convention center are city assets he said, and should be subject to public input from all council districts.
He also questioned the ability of youth to access the pool from all corners of the city as the city lacks bike infrastructure connecting north to south and public transit can become expensive and can involve protracted bus rides from the city’s north and west sides to get to Belmont Shore.
While the vice mayor eventually voted in favor of certification but not without requesting greater outreach by city staff to all parts of the city and asking that other funding options be explored to ensure that future projects are useful to all residents.
“Simply admitting that Tidelands funds are limited to the beachfront communities is no longer an adequate excuse for not taking on big infrastructure projects outside of the downtown, the port area and the Tidelands areas,” Richardson said. “A better value proposition for residents means actually taking steps to address big infrastructure that’s accessible to the whole city.”
The council’s decision pushes the project forward where it will now be evaluated by the California Coastal Commission which can make additional recommendations and tweaks to the pool’s layout before returning to the city council for a final vote.
The original pool was shuttered in late 2013 after it was found to be seismically deficient and city staff was directed to begin work on a replacement facility that could maintain and enhance the city’s distinction as an “aquatics capital”. The proposed $103 million project includes an indoor and outdoor olympic pool with diving facilities, a moveable floor, a translucent bubble dome serving as a roof and the capacity to host thousands of spectators for large swim meets.
Alternate locations were considered in the EIR and included the “Elephant lot” next to the convention center and the Queen Mary but both were shot down. The Queen Mary idea was abandoned after the current lessee declined to take on the pool project and the Elephant lot proposal was let go after it was determined that the pool project would have to replace the parking spaces removed by the construction of the pool complex.
The three main arguments made by residents against the advancement of the project focused on the location of the pool and how climate change and the resulting sea level rise could impact it down the line, how the new footprint of the structure would eliminate trees that are home to migratory birds, the large translucent shell’s impact on line of sight for residents and surrounding businesses as well as a social justice aspect with many members of the public remarking on the $100 million project serving only the affluent communities in the city’s southern coast.
Anna Christensen of the Long Beach Area Peace Network and one of the four complainants said that building such a world class facility in Belmont Shore when there are six other council districts with larger populations and a higher concentration of minorities would amount to an injustice and would perpetuate what she characterized as a “systemic lack of diversity in aquatics.”
“It not only violates the public trust, but also local state and federal laws,” Christensen said. “There is a new sheriff in town and the BPP [Belmont Plaza Pool] is under arrest.”
Corliss Lee, a member of the resident group Citizens About Responsible Planning (CARP) which was also one of the main objectors to the project being certified, compared the proposed project to Santa Monica’s public pool which cost a fraction of the anticipated $103 million identified to construct the new Belmont Pool. Despite the amount of money invested in the Long Beach project she said, the sticker price will not protect it from the forces of nature.
“This particular location is fraught with risk,” Lee said. “No organization that is profitable would dream of investing in this pool because you can put $130 million into it and mother nature comes by and cracks it. What are you going to do with that?”
Last week the Coastal Commission delivered a letter to the city stating its position regarding the pool’s height and vulnerability to sea level rise. The letter dated May 11, served as a supplement to previous comments submitted to the city regarding the pool, but focused on the objections raised by residents over the size and location of the pool complex.
“Beaches are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of new development because beaches backed by fixed or permanent development, such as the new pool facility, will not be able to migrate inland as sea level rises, and will become permanently inundated over time, which in turn presents serious concerns for future public access, recreation and habitat protection,” South Central Coast District Deputy Director Steve Hudson wrote. “For these reasons, Commission staff believes that the best practice is to avoid locating new development in hazardous areas subject to sea level rise and shoreline erosion.”
Uranga, who serves on the Coastal Commission, may have revealed the most of what the fate of the project will ultimately be. He remarked on the pool’s design and how it currently exceeds the local coastal plan’s height restrictions by nearly 20 feet adding that it’s “too high” and will most likely have to be adjusted.
He then touched on the element of sea level rise and the expected impact it will have on the pool project if it’s built on the same footprint as the previous pool. The EIR predicted that by 2060 the sea could rise by several feet leading to an inundation of much of the complex by 2100. Adjustments will surely be made, Uranga said.
“There is a project here, it’s just not this project,” Uranga said. “And because of that I don’t think I can support the project as it is and I will have to support the appeal of this case.”
Once the Coastal Commission makes its recommendations and the item returns to the city council for a final vote, the issue of funding for the project may still be unresolved. The original plans for the pool and its budget were drafted when the price of oil, which is part of the Tidelands Fund that finances infrastructure projects in the coastal zone, was trading at nearly $100 per barrel. That figure has since dropped to about $48 per barrel opening up a large gap in funding which currently sits at just over $40 million.
The city has since stated that it will seek out alternate sources of funding for the project including seeking out grants and a possible crowd funding effort of which the city hopes to raise about $25 million. It's still expected that the project will be completed by 2020.