When A Community Treasure Crumbles

Parks and recreation departments often feel pressure from the community when facilities close for repairs or maintenance. For the city of Tampa, where the intense Florida heat makes public pools a necessity in the summer, resident outcry was much stronger when a neighborhood pool in Williams Park was shut down in 2009 for being non-code compliant. The pool was unsafe because of structural leaking, a poorly performing filtration system, and failing chemical systems.

Williams Park serves an East Tampa neighborhood where—unlike some of the surrounding neighborhoods closer to the beach—many of the homes do not have private swimming pools. Thus, the public Williams Park pool was a community hub where families could play, exercise, learn to swim, and cool off. “When it was open, it was a valuable asset to our community. It gave kids an opportunity to swim and recreate right in their own community,” says East Tampa’s District 5 City Commissioner Frank Reddick. After the pool was closed, commissioners heard from many area residents who wanted their pool back. “[Kids] would see on TV and in the newspaper that other communities had a pool, and those kids were having fun playing in the pool—especially during the summer months when most kids are out of school and it’s hot, and they just want a place to go cool off,” Reddick says. 

Calling In Reinforcements

Understanding that the pool had experienced significant degradation since its original construction, city officials took all the right steps to involve an aquatic consultant to assess the true damage to the pool and find the best long-term solution.

Aquatic Design & Engineering (ADE) was brought in to assess how the property could be reopened. Representatives from the firm observed that the concrete structure of the pool had “popped,” meaning that the pressure of the groundwater had pushed the entire shell of the pool out of the ground. If a concrete basin is “popping” or “floating,” its structural integrity is in jeopardy. Beyond the failing basin, the pool was in poor condition and was littered with cracks and fissures. The pool was also finished with painted concrete, and the permanent pool toy—a large climbable frog—was in poor condition. It was the opinion of ADE’s specialists that the methods used in the original construction of the pool had combined with a misunderstanding of city resources that were available for upkeep and maintenance, leading to the pool’s failure.

The equipment that had been selected for the original pool created an environment in which the water was not being adequately filtered or chemically treated. In public outdoor facilities—particularly in subtropical climates like in Central Florida—it is critical for the safety of all users that pool water is receiving adequate care. Had the city not closed the pool in 2009, the structural failings would have continued to create issues, and the chemical and filtration insufficiencies could have created potentially hazardous water conditions. Even though the city made an unpopular decision to close the pool, it was in the best interest of the community and the long-term health of its residents.

While the community began to clamor for the pool to be reopened almost immediately following the closing, it remained closed for 3 years due to budget constraints, and many residents feared the pool was in danger of being permanently closed. The city hired Holmes, Hepner & Associates Architects (HHA) and ADE to assess a number of pools throughout the area; recommendations for the pool required a $1.5-million budget commitment from the city. But with a tireless advocate in Commissioner Reddick, the pool renovations finally earned a spot in the mayor’s budget, and by 2012, HHA and ADE had started a design for the facility renovations. 

Equipment Upgrade

Knowing the history of the pool and the original frugal construction methods, the engineering team approached the project as though it were a large commercial development or a high-end hotel facility by balancing the current budget with the long-term operating costs of the amenity. The original equipment was ill-suited to the maintenance capacity of the facility staff and the planned programming needs. In the end, the equipment selections focused on reducing ongoing maintenance costs rather than reducing capital investment.

One example of such a selection was in the filtration design. The pool had previously utilized a style of commercial filtration called a Vacuum DE filter. This type of filter requires nearly daily oversight, and unfortunately—as with many public parks departments—the maintenance staff was not equipped to meet those demands, resulting in failing filtration. To resolve this problem, regenerative media filters were chosen. These filters do not require the same time investment from maintenance staff, and also provide a variety of other improvements, including up to 10 times the filtration power. Regenerative media filters have been shown to provide as much as 90 percent water savings, as well as more than 20 percent electrical savings. The pool was the first in the city to utilize this type of filter, upgrading its filtration system from insufficient to industry-leading, while also suiting the staff and creating sustainable cost savings.

Low-Profile Pool

In addition to the changes in equipment, ADE created a new profile for the pool. Originally, the pool had used a zero-entry that descended as low as 8 feet at the “deep end.” However, mainly for safety reasons, pools do not usually utilize depths such as these any longer. With the updated design, the pool now reaches its nadir at 5 feet.  By using a shallower profile and updating signage to the code, the pool reduces the likelihood of bathers accidentally reaching dangerous swimming areas.

Another consideration for lower profiles is whether the outdoor pools are operated year-round. The Williams Park pool had previously become a haven for illicit activity and a target of vandalism when it was drained in the winter. With an 8-foot deep end, an adult person could reasonably stand in the empty basin without fear of being seen. By creating a reduced profile, the pool is now better able to ward off such activity.

Growing Up And Moving On

Besides creating pools that operate well from a maintenance standpoint, it is important to create engaging pools to suit the recreational needs of the community. The Williams Park pool now offers a broad range of ways for residents to engage with the amenity, including a zero-entry that not only matches the aesthetics embraced by world-class resorts but also creates a great space for young children to bathe in shallow waters. The pool has also formed an exciting poolscape for kids by adding permanent play features, which have provided benefits in terms of cooperative play and cognitive development.

Every project will face challenges—the two most unavoidable being budget and space. While the Williams Park pool incorporated all-new, custom-designed chemical and filtration systems, those systems became a major challenge when they had to fit within the existing space of the undersized equipment room, especially regarding access for regular maintenance.

Today, the Williams Park pool has completed its second summer since reopening in 2013, and residents and city officials are thrilled. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s director of parks and recreation noted the pool’s wide appeal to all ages, saying, “The first folks in the pool this morning were the seniors!” 

Revitalizing a failed pool requires a group effort. For the Williams Park pool, the city, parks department, HHA architects, and ADE all came together to make the pool an even better community asset than it was before. It all boils down to understanding what had gone wrong in the previous operation of the pool and then completing a design to prevent future failure. The design team was able to engineer the new design according to the real-world demands of the project, ultimately keeping the residents in mind. 

Based in Orlando, Fla., Josh Martin is the president of Aquatic Design & Engineering (ADE), a specialty water-feature design firm. Reach him at josh@adedesign.com.



Recognizing Warning Signs Of A Failing Pool

  • Excessive maintenance: If the pool’s pump, filter, or other equipment starts to require frequent repairs or replacements, consider conducting an assessment of the property.
  • Unknown chemical loss: An unresolved chemical imbalance can cause expensive problems over time and eventually result in the closure of the pool.
  • Cracks appearing on the deck and in the basin: In most cases, cracks in the pool are not simply an issue of wear-and-tear. If you begin to notice cracks or fissures, these can signal a structural issue with the pool.
  • Water clarity: Pool water should always be crystal-clear in appearance. If the water requires frequent changes due to clarity issues, this may be a sign of a larger problem.
  • Peeling, chipping, or cracking of tiles: Once pool tiles begin to suffer excessive damage, this may indicate significant wear-and-tear or a structural issue.
  • Non-working play features.