No North Portland year-around pool until 2029

First of a multi-part series on Portland Park Bureau’s controversial closure of Columbia Pool, the only year-round swimming pool serving North Portland. A followup story will appear in our April edition.

Nine years. 

That’s how long North Portlanders won’t have a year-round swimming pool because of the Portland Park & Recreation Bureau’s (PP&R) failure to perform basic Columbia Park Pool maintenance leading to its unnecessary closure in 2020, said Ed Fernbach, an environmental engineer who has long worked for engineering firms that contract on city projects.

Ed Fernbach in front of Columbia Pool
Ed Fernbach

Previous City Commissioners Nick Fish and Carmen Rubio both pushed for closing Columbia to make it easier to fund a proposed $50 million aquatic center, Fernbach said. “The only problem,” he added, “it will be nine years before any aquatic center will be ready.”

That nine-year gap means a generation of kids not learning to swim.

Susan Kincade, Columbia Pool neighbor

And Friends of Columbia Park (FOCP) is re-energizing a campaign to restore Columbia Pool. At the last FOCP meeting, Chair Rachel Burdon proposed board action this spring calling for the city to promptly repair, restore or repurpose the pool. Burdon cited documentation showing that since 2006 PP&R has neglected to maintain Columbia Pool resulting in the pool’s closure.   She also warned of inadequate maintenance of the Columbia Cottage and Warming Station near the playground.

Furthermore, Burdon asked that city decision-makers remove Columbia Park from the list of potential Aquatic Center locations because the $50 million project would jeopardize the park’s natural and historic integrity.

Swimming pool supporters also take heart in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s decision to transfer Rubio from the Parks Bureau, and replace her with Commissioner Dan Ryan, who inherits the issue and a nearly $500 million P&PR citywide maintenance backlog affecting all city parks including Arbor Lodge, Kenton, Overlook and Peninsula parks.

Ryan, a North Portland native and Roosevelt High School graduate, was not able to comment on this story before the press deadline.

PP&R is looking at five locations for the Aquatic Center, Columbia Park, its annex, the Charles Jordan Community Center, Northgate Park and St. Johns Park.

City staff will host another Community Workshop in late April on the Aquatic Center project, at a site to be determined.  

Aquatic Center supporters argue that the new center would feature two pools and offer a wide array of swim lessons, open play and lap swimming, water fitness classes, and high-level swimming competitions.

Fernbach, a 20-year veteran himself of masters-level swimming competitions, has mixed feelings. I’d love to have an aquatic center myself, but where is the demand for one in North Portland—and for $50 million bucks?”  

Two independent architects joined with Fernbach in researching a FOCP task force facilities technical report last year that eviscerated PP&R for not maintaining the pool and lacking discernable interest in preserving a valuable public asset.          The study cited the city’s own internal 2018 figures showing it could repair Columbia Pool’s roof, pool mechanical and HVAC system for $2,250,000. 

Fernbach says that factoring in 5% to 7% annual inflation, the restoration might be more in the $2.5 million-range, but the claim by some PP&R staff that the restoration would cost $15 million to $25 million “is a poppycock scare tactic.”

He explained that the SEFT Consulting Group, Beaverton, also studied Columbia Pool and “agreed with the (Friends of Columbia Pool) task force that pool needed some maintenance and new roof but SEFT—did not say—it was impossible to fix. 

“That is where  Commissioner Rubio and the Park Bureau went off the rails,” Fernbach said.  They closed a valuable public asset and closed swimming access for nine years, so they could exclusively focus on $50 million aquatic center.”

Mark Kirchmeier is a Friends of Columbia Park member

Photo caption: Ed Fernbach

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