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McCarren Park Pool: A Political Tale
by Grant Moser

"We've 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

In 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 in 1986.

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 then.)

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 advocacy group.

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

Over 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 considerations.

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 entire property.

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 arch.

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 time?

Ah, politics.

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.

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[email protected] | February 2003 | Issue 35
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