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Lifeguards in Training May Crowd Out Locals at Reopened 59th Street Pool

By Leslie Albrecht | April 16, 2012 6:54am | Updated on April 16, 2012 11:17am
The city trains lifeguards at the Chelsea Recreation Center.
The city trains lifeguards at the Chelsea Recreation Center.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Upper West Siders fear their dreams of finally swimming at a state-of-the-art public pool are about to belly flop.

The city will soon unveil a $15 million renovation to the neighborhood's only public pool at the long-closed 59th Street Recreation Center.

But neighborhood officials, who fought a 15 year battle to build the new pool, believe the rec center will be clogged with hundreds of trainees from the city's lifeguard training program, which will be headquartered at the refurbished facility.

They claim the lifeguard trainees, who must be in top physical condition and able to swim 440 yards in seven minutes and 40 seconds, will overwhelm the rec center's pool and locker room, and won't leave enough room for lap-loving locals.

Community Board 7 recently passed a resolution demanding that the Parks Department make the new pool "open and accessible to the public all year long," and asking the agency to find "a more suitable location" for the lifeguard training program.

For years, Parks Department officials promised that Upper West Siders would have unfettered access to the 82' x 31' indoor pool when it reopened, said Community Board 7 member Mel Wymore.

But those hopes were dashed when Parks officials told local leaders recently that up to 1,800 lifeguards would use the pool six days a week April through August, Wymore said. A Parks Department spokesman said the figure is closer to 1,200 lifeguards.

"We're not against lifeguard training," Wymore explained. "We recognize how important it is to the city and the safety of New Yorkers.

"[But the new pool] has been a community movement that's lasted almost two decades. It's unconscionable that it wouldn’t be available to the public."

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, said she's spoken to Parks Department officials about the community's concerns and will continue to pressure them.

"It makes you angry," Brewer said of the thought that local kids, families and seniors who rely on the pool for exercise might not have full access to it.

"The space is beautifully renovated, but it’s small and the lifeguards are big. It's like being in a small house with big people."

The Parks Department said there's plenty of room for everyone at the facility. It doesn't plan to move the lifeguard training program because the rec center is near the Columbus Circle transit hub, which makes it "uniquely accessible" to trainees from across the city, said First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanaugh.

"We will continue to use it as a training center, as we have for many years," said Kavanaugh in an emailed statement."Lifeguard training begins in January and peaks in May and June, but we work to maintain regular public use of the swimming pool throughout the training season."

Kavanagh noted that city lifeguards are critical to the safety of the 20 million people who visit city pools and beaches each year.  Right now the lifeguard training program is housed at the Chelsea Recreation Center, where lifeguards use the pool from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday. Hours for the new 59th Street rec center haven't been set yet.

Emotions over the new pool run high because it's been a long-awaited neighborhood amenity, locals said.

What's now the 59th Street Rec Center was once made up of two buildings on West 59th and West 60th Street between Amstersdam and West End avenues. Its first building, an indoor pool, was built in 1906 as one of the city's first public bath houses for working-class immigrants from the surrounding area who didn't have indoor plumbing.

In the following years, the city added a fieldhouse on West 59th Street that became popular with the Irish community in Hell's Kitchen, longshoremen who worked the West Side docks and the African-American community in the area known as San Juan Hill, that was later torn down to make way for Lincoln Center, according to the Parks Department.

The city opened an outdoor pool at the site in 1943. It provided years of fun for locals, while the lifeguard training program used the indoor pool.

But the outdoor pool was closed in 1990 after it became cracked. It sat unused for three years until a developer who wanted approval to build a high-rise nearby offered to pitch in $2.6 million to rebuild the pool, Wymore explained.

The Parks Department nixed the idea, in part because of the ongoing expense of maintaining an outdoor pool. Instead it asked the community to come up with a plan for spending the $2.6 million on renovating the indoor pool and fieldhouse.

For years, Upper West Siders held public meetings on the issue, and Community Board 7 even formed a 59th Street Rec Center task force that wrote a 50-page report on the community's vision for the center in 2001.

When locals were surveyed about the rec center, many complained that lifeguard trainees were crowding them out of the indoor pool.

"The pool has been practically inaccessible because of lifeguard training," wrote one survey respondent.

Next, locals went to work raising more than $15 million for the project. Over the past decade, they pulled in donations from public resources such as City Council members' discretionary budgets, and won private contributions from developers, including the Extell Development Company which wanted to build in the area.

In 2009, the facility was shuttered and renovations finally began on the indoor pool and rec center. The outdoor pool was never reopened, and the original 59th Street fieldhouse was torn down to create outdoor play space.

Neighborhood residents have been eagerly awaiting the new facility, which will be named after Gertrude Ederle, the daughter of an Amsterdam Avenue butcher who, in 1926, was the first woman to swim the English Channel.

When it reopens, the rec center will have fitness classes, rock climbing and, of course, swimming classes for the low price of $150 a year.

"This once was a thriving rec center," Wymore said. "The community has been waiting. To not have it available to the public would just be a crying shame."

Mary Rosado, a 62-year-old lawyer who learned to swim at the rec center, said Upper West Siders are ready to fight for access to the new pool. She said helped organized protest marches when the city tried to close the facility in the early 1990s, and said she was ready to do it again.

"The community has fought long and hard," Rosado said, adding that she was prepared to lead Upper West Siders to lock the doors to prevent lifeguards from entering. "It's going to be an all-out war this time."