Park Pool: A Political Tale
by Grant Moser
cut off our noses [to spite our faces] for 20 years. It's
time to get together on this," said Robert Bratko,
chairman of Greenpoint's Community Board 1's Parks Committee,
referring to the McCarren Park Pool.
The pool (sitting vacant, unused, deteriorating, fenced
off, and forlorn) had no comment.
The Early Years
The pool was opened in 1936 during a monumental summer
of public projects in New York. It was the middle of The
Great Depression, and the Works Progress Administration
opened a series of ten pools throughout the city. They were
designed to provide recreation, generate employment, and
get people's minds off the economy.
The brainchild of Robert Moses, who was responsible one
way or another for nearly all of the city's open spaces,
the network of pools would supplement the one existing public
pool in the city and become an example of civic generosity.
Moses and Mayor LaGuardia opened one pool every week that
summer. McCarren Park Pool, at a cost of $1 million, boasted
a capacity of 6800 simultaneous swimmers and was the size
of three Olympic pools combined. It was one of the largest
public pools in the world. It, like its 9 counterparts,
was an immediate success with the residents.
The Dark Years
1979, the city approved $100 million to restore the entire
network of pools (many of which had fallen into a state
of disrepair and neglect due to the fiscal crisis of the
70's that had forced major cutbacks in upkeep and security)
so they would all be ready for the 50th anniversary celebration
The pool was closed in 1983 to begin repairs and then the
community said no. A blockade of residents protested fixing
the pool up, citing the petty crime and undesirables it
attracted. (I was sitting in The Charleston one afternoon
at happy hour last year, talking to a long-time resident
who was near me at the bar. The pool came up in conversation
and he claimed [proudly] he was part of the effort to close
it down back then "one way or the other, to keep the
coloreds out." Officials and other people I talked
with for the article admitted times were different back
Enter politics. A task force was set up to determine how
to overcome the community divide. A recommendation was issued
to shrink the size of the pool and demolish the bathhouses
that issued out of the sides of the arch.
"That was a stupid idea. The archway and the bathhouses
are world-renowned pieces of architecture. The highness
of the arch to the long, low-slung bathhouses creates a
unique silhouette. Besides, it was illegal to tear it down
if there were no plans for its future," explained Phyllis
Yampolsky, head of the McCarren Park Conservancy, a private
There were no plans for its future. The demolition was
put on hold, and Yampolsky began her fight to restore the
arch and renovate the property. Community Board 1 had other
ideas, and division ruled again.
The pool sat alone, a hulking, decaying mass, with razor-wire
fencing and graffiti its only guests.
The New Century
a decade later, in April 2001, Community Board 1, the City
Parks Department, and Councilman Fischer approved a plan
for renovating the pool. The "compromise plan"
was based on a proposal by Vollmer and Associates to create
a multi-use center incorporating a skate park, an indoor
recreational area for sports and cultural events, and a
smaller pool that became an ice rink in the winter.
The price tag: $26 million.
Yampolsky and the Conservancy signed on to the compromise,
even though they had designed their own model (by Robert
Stern, Yale University's Dean of Architecture) that incorporates
a café area under the arch, restores the bathhouses,
retains a smaller pool, opens galleries, community rooms,
a restaurant, and a health club, and installs an outdoor
amphitheatre and a central open-air piazza. The price tag
for her plan is roughly the same as the compromise plan.
She did not show this model at the final meeting, claiming
the process of arriving at the decision involved a "white-bread
task force that didn't inquire what the community wanted
and presented no other options or input to choose from.
The deal was already set before the vote. The Vollmer proposal
was one drawing. It was an attitude, not a complete plan."
Councilman Fischer gathered together nearly $4 million
to jumpstart the compromise plan, and then came September
11. Budgets were slashed, priorities were rearranged, and
then Fischer lost in his bid to become borough president
and the money evaporated.
The new councilman, David Yassky, has now joined the fray.
His liaison for Greenpoint, Eric Paulsen, told me the councilman
has $500,000 in discretionary capital funds he'd like to
use for the park. But there are a variety of options and
Option 1: Restore the arch and create a temporary
skate park on the bottom of the pool bed. Yampolsky supports
this idea, citing that using part of the property and reopening
the archway will be a lightning rod to draw people back
to the park and get the city energized about restoring the
At the end of January, Yampolsky presented a formal proposal
to Yassky to restore the archway, install bathrooms, create
an outdoor food area, and build a temporary sports surface
on the pool bottom.
Consideration 1: The City Parks Department is not exactly
behind that idea, said Paulsen. The money from Yassky would
be given to the Parks Department, and they are currently
under mandate from the Mayor (like all "non-essential"
city agencies) to cut 30% of their budget. "We have
to play ball with the Parks Department because of the budget.
We need them behind our idea or it could become part of
the 30%," said Paulsen.
Consideration 2: If the city finds space for a skate park
(the bottom of the current pool), the state will provide
the money. That frees up Yassky's money for other uses in
the park. Talks are still in the preliminary stages, but
"the city likes that idea," said Paulsen. "In
tough times, it's hard to find extra money for recreation."
Of course, the state money does not cover restoring the
Option 2: An idea the City Parks Department does
like is redoing the soccer field directly across the street
from the arch. Originally a natural grass surface, it has
deteriorated into a muddy, slick, stone-filled field, with
an abnormal amount of broken glass mixed in. Paulsen likes
this idea as well because "kids can't play there now.
It's too dangerous." Yampolsky opposes the idea because
"the soccer field is only for soccer players."
So: Does Yassky let the state pay for a skate park
(which may or may not happen) and forego restoring the arch
to restore the soccer field, or put his money into making
sure there is a skate park and restored arch with the possibility
the Parks Department might not support the idea come budget
It seems no matter what approach, incremental fixing-up
of the pool is the only way to proceed right now. That is
mainly because there is not $26 million laying around, though
Yampolsky said she will go knock on every rich person's
door to find the money.