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Should Atlanta spend $17.5 million on an indoor pool?

A closer look at one of the biggest proposed projects in Atlanta’s $250 million infrastructure bond package

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On March 17, Atlanta residents will have the chance to vote on a $250 million infrastructure bond package containing more than 225 projects ranging from $9,000 school zone “flashers” — that’s an unfortunate name — to multi-million dollar bridge replacements. If passed, one of biggest undertakings won’t be related to transportation or streetscapes, but an indoor community pool in the heart of Old Fourth Ward.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Natatorium, which first opened in 1978, has been a major community resource to Atlantans for decades. Residents from all walks of life have used the pool. It was a place where Old Fourth Ward children learned to tread water, Olympic-caliber swimmers trained, and seniors waded.

But the facility wasn’t properly maintained over the years. A round of repairs occurred following a 2009 report. Then in November 2012, the city’s parks department closed the pool and fitness center after an engineering firm reported that the building could be structurally unsound. The firm found that corrosion in the basement had compromised the building and that “rehabilitation would be cost prohibitive and not practical.”

With the help of Atlanta Public Schools, city residents have since been able to log laps at King Middle School’s pool in Grant Park. In the meantime, city officials have worked on finding a way to replace the city’s lone natatorium east of the Downtown Connector. The city’s parks department — which has little to no funding for capital improvement projects, partially due to the use of park improvement bonds to fund early Atlanta Beltline property acquisition and development during former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration — doesn’t have cash for a new aquatic complex. That lack of funding, combined with the natatorium’s dilapidated condition, is how it ultimately made the final infrastructure bond package list.

According to the mayor’s office, plans for the new natatorium would call for an up-to 70,000 square-feet facility. That includes an indoor pool, changing areas, a fitness room, and multi-purpose community rooms. Such a facility, which would cost less than the $25 million initially proposed — funding for demolition, land purchase, and environmental testing costs are no longer needed — would be expected to last more than 20 years. The pool would be open year-round and be designed for individual and family swim — not competitions.

“It’s been a long time coming, this had to be addressed,” says Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents the district where the pool would be built and also once worked at the shuttered natatorium as a lifeguard more than two decades ago. “This is a city that’s always had great rec facilities. This is an Eastside asset that all Atlantans can enjoy.”

Building a new natatorium isn’t cheap. City officials want to spend $17.5 million of the city’s infrastructure bond to build the new facility, making it the most expensive project that isn’t related to transportation. While no one disputes the benefits of the pool, there’s still a big question: Should the infrastructure bond be used for projects that are, well, aren’t for paving roads, fixing crumbling bridges, or creating new bike lanes?

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That depends on whom you ask. One City Hall source recently told CL: “Fixing bridges is a top priority. Spending nearly 10 percent on a swimming pool is surreal.” But the mayor’s office says it’s “taking a broad view of infrastructure” by including building maintenance — there’s more than $10 million allocated for potential upgrades to police precincts, fire stations, and other city-owned facilities — and buildings like the natatorium that benefit the public.

“When the MLK Natatorium was closed initially, Mayor Kasim Reed made a commitment to reopen it for all Atlantans to enjoy,” says Reed Spokeswoman Jenna Garland, adding that the project would provide a major amenity that’s affordable and accessible to public transit. “The MLK Natatorium was the most popular swim facility before it closed. We expect it will be just as popular.”

Hall, who says the facility will help cut down on traffic by stopping people from driving across town to the Adamsville Recreation Center’s indoor pool, agrees with the mayor’s office: “For Atlanta to be a city of this caliber, infrastructure investments in the classic sense are critical. But from time to time, this kind of acquisition has to be made.” Given that such a building will last for decades, he’s not concerned with the one-off cost involved with the project.

The MLK Natatorium, though welcomed, has raised some eyebrows with folks actively involved in the area. David Patton, former NPU-M land use chair and an Old Fourth Ward resident, supports the project, but questions the funding mechanism. “The city chooses to use bonds for things that it shouldn’t,” he says. Despite the costs, however, he says the proposed natatorium construction has “broad support” among neighborhood residents.

Matthew Garbett, a former Fourth Ward Neighbors president and current Adair Park resident, who had often disagreed with Patton in the past on development issues, seems to find some common ground. “It really is a cornerstone of the community,” he writes to CL. “The MLK Natatorium amount seems high when you consider how many fundamental maintenance issues are left unfunded this round.”