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St. Louis hasn't built a public pool in 33 years. It might take 33 more.

Jul 13, 2005 at 4:00 am
Many consider southwest St. Louis, with its fish-stocked lakes, clay-paved sidewalks and 100-plus acres of parkland, one of the city's plushest addresses. Nowhere, though, will you find a decent public swimming pool -- never mind a proper waterslide.

Then again, it's been decades since any St. Louis neighborhood could claim bragging rights to a first-class watering hole -- bars and taverns excluded.

In 1912 the city created an aquatic wonder with the Fairground Pool at Grand Boulevard and Natural Bridge Road. At the time, the luxurious Fairground was thought to be the world's largest municipal swimming pool. But that's all water under the bridge now. With the steady drumbeat of suburban growth, lavish pools and well-appointed recreation centers have long passed cash-strapped St. Louis by.

These days, from Maplewood to Webster Groves to Des Peres, each new community pool is designed to outdo the others, with brightly colored shade structures, giant animal-shape fountains, resort-like landscaping and soaring, serpentine waterslides that swish children into shallow leisure pools while parents float down a current-enhanced "lazy river" nearby. "It's the desire to have what the Joneses have," concludes Nancy MacCartney, director of the University City Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry.

Meanwhile, there are three outdoor and five indoor pools in all of St. Louis. The last one was completed more than 30 years ago. As Mayor Francis Slay admitted after his re-election earlier this year, the city's recreation facilities are "shabby" and "embarrassing" when stacked up against the county's bounty.

A cadre of city residents aims to change all that. Bill Burnes, Wayne Myrick, Mike Banahan and Ken Crecelius want to build the Nottingham Community Center on a leafy four-acre plot near Francis Park in the heart of southwest St. Louis. They say a three-pool public facility can be constructed at a cost of $10 to $12 million. Funding, they assert, could be provided by the creation of a Community Improvement District (CID), a taxing tool designed to bankroll special services or beautification projects the city can't afford.

An ad executive and a city dweller for fifteen years, Burnes raised his kids in the area, resisting the temptation to move to the 'burbs. He and his cohorts have long decried the "abysmal" state of St. Louis' recreation facilities. "Now four people have finally gotten off their rumps to do something about them," he says. "If it works in our neighborhood, it could work in any other neighborhood across the city."

A year and a half ago, Burnes and his foursome began studying the feasibility of a neighborhood community center and pool. The group has since ballooned to sixteen members. Two volunteers, St. Louis architects Marcus Adrian and Michael DeVlieger, donated about $40,000 in pro-bono architectural fees to develop a structural plan for the center, envisioned as a 12,000-square-foot pleasure palace replete with exercise facilities as well as meeting, banquet and game rooms. Plans also call for outdoor terraces and a lazy river that flows around the exterior of the swimming pools. Part of the project's price tag would go toward beautification projects in the neighborhood and the nearby business district.

At the outset, the pool team researched the amenities and layouts of county recreation centers, but deliberately kept their project under wraps from the general public until they'd hammered out one design.

"There's limited real estate in southwest city, and you want to make sure your ducks are in a row before you start pointing publicly to various pieces of land," explains committee member Jim Orso. But two months ago, the team began conducting a series of public meetings, inviting area citizens' groups to gander at several dozen detailed architectural renderings of the planned project.

"We've gotten overwhelming support," Burnes says. "We have more than 120 people signed up to volunteer to do anything. And of the surveys we've given out, 92 percent of those who completed them say this is an outstanding idea."

There are, however, a couple of sticking points.

Encouraged by the fact that the St. Louis Public Schools have put about 45 schools on the auction block in recent years, Burnes' group had zeroed in on what they believed was an ideally situated facility: Nottingham School, located on Donovan Avenue across from Francis Park in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.

"We did get a letter in the mail that looked like somebody wanted to make the school into a country club," confirms Martin Braeske, planning supervisor for the school district. The group did not submit an offer, merely a letter of intent to make one, he adds. "It was a fancy little package."

"We aren't country clubbers," Orso insists. In fact, he says, if a rec center were to be built, a board would devise a policy to allow access to city residents who live outside the CID. "We assume it will work like the county pools that people in our neighborhood access now as nonresidents: They pay a fee for daily or season passes."

Regardless, says Braeske, "Nottingham is not for sale."

The school, which would have to be torn down in order to construct the recreation center, is home to a vocational program for 100 middle-schoolers with special needs. "These kids can't get these kinds of skills in a typical high school setting," Braeske explains. "That's why we run the program."

"It's like someone coming to you and saying, 'Why don't you sell your house?'" seconds St. Louis Public Schools spokesman Johnny Little. "You don't have to sell your house if you don't want to. Nobody can make you sell anything."

The pool crew vows to press on. "Our focus is clearly on this Plan A: the Nottingham site," Orso says. Neither he nor Burnes will say what alternative locations they've scouted, but assuming they manage to settle on a site, they must also create a CID. And in order to do so, 51 percent of the affected property owners must agree to an annual assessment calculated according to the square footage of their property. If the group manages to collect the sufficient number of signatures, the plan must then be approved by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

Downtown residents formed St. Louis' first CID in 2000; the city is now home to four: Grand Center; South Grand Boulevard at Arsenal Street; and Laclede's Landing and Gaslight Square, both of which were approved earlier this year. Burnes estimates that about 6,500 households would make up the Nottingham CID, the precise boundaries of which have not yet been drawn.

Sixteenth Ward Alderman Donna Baringer is open to the idea. "If the voters want it," she says, "that's fine."

But do they want it? Some residents have already objected to the CID and its annual price tag. Some also worry that a recreation complex would create parking and nuisance issues.

"If I lived two blocks from here, I'd be for it," gripes David Kloud, whose Neosho Street home is adjacent to Nottingham School. "If you live next door, you get all the noise, the filth, the dirt, the traffic, the litter."

Says Burnes: "Those issues will be resolved to neighbors' satisfaction."

At least one other city neighborhood has a different solution to cooling off residents come summertime. In Lafayette Square, homeowners can join the Lafayette Square Bath & Tennis Club, a not-for-profit corporation that owns an outdoor pool and tennis court in a secluded patch of land located off a neighborhood alley. Homeowners pay a one-time fee of $1,200, plus annual fees of $250, to use the club.

And plenty of city residents rely on county facilities. University City is the latest area municipality to upgrade its recreation services. Last year U. City spent $1.6 million to renovate its outdoor aquatic center in Heman Park. This fall the city will open Centennial Commons, a $6.3 million recreation center chock-a-block with game and exercise rooms, banquet facilities, even a babysitting service.

Nonresidents can already purchase season passes to the Commons, reports parks director Nancy MacCartney. "I'm hoping we'll get people from the city of St. Louis," she says.