Saturday, June 07, 2008

CONTRERAS POOL TO REMAIN OFF LIMITS TO PUBLIC THIS SUMMER: Facility at $160 Million City West School Will Only Be Open to Students

by Ryan Vaillancourt | LA Downtown News

Saturday, June 7, 2008 - During the hot summer of 2007, a furor erupted when city and Los Angeles Unified School District officials announced that the sparkling new Olympic-sized pool at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex would be off-limits to the public, counter to long-held expectations. Officials promised to try to rectify the matter for 2008.

This summer the only people allowed to use the pool at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex will be the 2,000 students at the school. The pool will be open on weekdays. Photo by Magnus Stark.

Now, with the weather warming up again, it will be a similar situation for much of the community. Los Angeles Downtown News has learned that this summer the pool at the $160 million City West school will only be open to its 2,000 students, who on weekdays will have access to a variety of structured aquatic programming, from beginner swim lessons to water polo training.

The rest of the park-poor community will have to find other opportunities, including a recently reopened nearby pool.

District and city officials tout the plan as a major leap from last year, when the pool - considered among the highest quality aquatic facilities in the region - was almost entirely off-limits to residents of the surrounding area.

Some of the same voices that lobbed criticism on the school district and the city Department of Recreation and Parks for not opening the pool last year say the new plan, while a boon for students, is a major letdown for younger children and families who live near the school.

"That is a profoundly disappointing response, that after almost a year, the city Recreation and Parks department and LAUSD cannot figure out how to open a pool for the community's use," said Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, a City West-based group that advocates for urban parks. "Opening it only to the students at the school is better than nothing, but there are far more children in that area."

According to a recent study by the City Project and GreenInfo Network, the 563,179 people who live within a three-mile radius of Miguel Contreras Learning Complex have access to 956 acres of park space, which translates to less than a half-acre of park per 1,000 residents.

Visible through a chain-link fence that runs along Third Street near Lucas Avenue, the pool was a caged-off object of desire last summer. School officials caught a few would-be intruders trying to sneak in, but they also found the detritus of those who had successfully climbed the fence for covert, weekend swims.

Public Access

City and district officials said last year that the major hurdles to opening the pool were a lack of funding - the cost of lifeguards was frequently cited - and the fact that the facility was not designed with public access in mind.

This year, the district has partnered with two youth fitness-related nonprofits to offer swim classes and aquatic athletics training three hours a day. For another three hours, the city will fund more structured student programming, drawing from $15,000 in Recreation and Parks funds and a $15,000 grant from the L.A. County Federation of Labor, according to a spokesperson from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office. The programs run in July and August.

A more significant problem, said Miguel Contreras Learning Complex Principal Heather Daims, involves protecting the school. Locker rooms and showers, while only a short walk from the pool, are not on the pool deck, and Daims said it would be impossible to open those facilities without creating access to the rest of the school's athletic campus, thereby inviting security and liability risks.

"It's a huge complex," she said. "My biggest concern is that kids are safe, whether they're MCLC kids or not, and that there's supervision."

Officials were also quick to cite the return of the Echo Deep Pool, also in City West. Located about a half-mile north of Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, the pool reopened May 29 after a $6.9 million renovation. The facility at 1419 Colton St. had been closed for more than four years.

"The good news is that what wasn't there last summer was Echo [Deep] Pool," said Paul Escala, director of joint-use development for LAUSD.

Garcia countered that the Echo Deep Pool is a separate issue. He said the city and the school district should not be let off the hook for an inability to open both pools to the public in the summer.

"There's a simple solution," Garcia said, referring to the security issue. "It's called locks and gates.... This is not rocket science. There are pools all over the city that are open to people."

Lesson for the Future

Although the pool will be off-limits to the general public during the summer, Escala said he could foresee one day building shower and storage space that would protect the school.

"The whole pool deck could be a secure area," he said.

Still, most city and district officials say the potential of public access to Miguel Contreras is limited at best in the next few years. Instead, officials are calling for better coordination between the city and LAUSD officials during the construction process, a point that was brought up last year as well.

"When we build new schools, it's absolutely essential that we design them to be incorporated into the community," said Emma Soichet, a spokeswoman for Villaraigosa. "In the future, we think we need to keep the community in mind."

To that end, the city and LAUSD are working to develop a master plan for 15 city or district-owned pools, including five not yet built. The agreement, which was approved by the Recreation and Parks Commission in January, now awaits LAUSD approval.

"Quite frankly the communication between the district and the city has been hit or miss, but this now creates that point of contact," Escala said. "We've learned a lot of lessons and we're trying to make up for a lot of years not spent communicating and working effectively together."

Student Pride

If community groups continue to press for more public access to the pool, they might find themselves battling a new, unexpected opponent: students.

The school, which opened in 2006, formed swim and water polo teams in 2007 and, in partnership with the nonprofits A World Fit for Kids and the Lenny Krayzelburg Foundation, has offered after-school swim and fitness programs since January.

Participants in those programs buzzed around the pool deck on a recent afternoon, posing for team pictures, studying for lifeguard certification tests and hopping in and out of the water for training.

"This is a place of solace and community," said Tony Grutman, executive director of the Lenny Krayzelburg Foundation, which works to introduce underserved youth in urban communities to swimming. "This really helps connect the kids to the school."

A group of four swim and water polo team members were bursting with excitement about the prospects of using the pool this summer. Several noted the risks inherent with opening the pool to the public.

"We like swimming and we take care of our pool," said Jonathan Ibarra, 17, who pointed to the graffiti-less concrete seating beside the pool deck.

Julio Reyes, 18, a senior hoping to land a lifeguard job this summer, agreed.

"We've got to look out for it because it's part of the school," Reyes said. "We can't just let anyone in here."

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