The City of Victoria wants to build a $70-million swimming pool but must first obtain consent from electors to borrow $60 million. Will they vote Yes?
ON FEBRUARY 16, Victoria councillors agreed to direct City staff to draw up plans to replace Crystal Pool, at a cost of up to $69.4 million, and to hold a referendum, likely at the end of 2017, that could see the City borrowing up to $60 million — the largest amount in its history.
But Victorians are going to be asking many other questions before we see the one on the referendum ballot.
Do we really need a new pool? Six years ago, a report by CEI Architecture said Crystal’s mechanical and electrical systems had “effectively reached the point of failure” and the pool was at risk of “immediate shutdown.” Last December, a followup study by HCMA Architecture + Design estimated that refurbishing the pool would cost $41 million and add 30 years to its life, while a $69.4-million replacement would last 50 years. There’s not much difference in per-year costs, but HCMA claimed a new facility would tap into a “latent demand” for swimming, resulting in a 22 percent increase in use.
Why so expensive? HCMA recommended a 50-metre new pool, based on surveys of some 1200 people (presumably most of them current users), and estimated it would cost $35 million to build. The other half of the $70-million budget is taken up by “soft costs” (design, project management), escalation, and funding for contingencies; this means the City won’t have to drain its reserves to cover overruns as it has for the new Johnson Street Bridge. Yes, Langford did open a new facility last year in partnership with the Westhills development and the YMCA/YWCA that cost $30 million, but their pool is only 25 metres long. City of Victoria staff say the Y doesn’t want to take on another project, and Victoria’s NDP councillors are against any deal that might threaten the “public” (unionized) status of the pool.
The main question is, though: Do you trust your City to manage another big project? The City staffers who sold us a new bridge have all moved on, but the arguments for replacement sound eerily similar. We’re facing an emergency. Repair means closure for a year or more. A new facility will be more accessible, and energy-efficient. The criticisms sound familiar too. The City has been warning that the pool is “nearing the end of its usable life” since at least 2004. The City has been conducting demolition by neglect. (CEI noted that “for the greatest portion of the building’s life, maintenance requirements have been deferred or completed only on an ‘as failed’ basis.”) The City refuses to simply repair as it goes, and largely ignored a 2015 Stantec report that said refurbishing or replacing the pool’s major systems would cost only $6.3 million and extend its life by 15 years. And the huge budget for soft costs and contingencies looks like a buffet for consultants’ fees.
It’s hard to guess, at this early stage, how the referendum will go: in a recent CHEK web poll, only 51 percent of 1175 respondents said Yes to a $69-million new pool. Although the pool sees 400,000 visits annually, the City doesn’t know what percentage of residents actually use the pool, or how much they’re willing to pay for it. The pool’s 4750 passholders will likely vote Yes, but the No side may be cheered on by business owners, who will also get hit with the 3.5 percent property-tax increase projected for replacement.
Recently I wrote to Mayor Lisa Helps, asking her to take the time to survey more of the public and determine what type of pool we want and can afford. Attaching a copy of a 2009 article on the decaying Crystal, she replied, “I think we’ve probably waited long enough to make a decision.”
She may be right. And there certainly would be benefits to having a brand-new aquatic centre. But later this year we’ll get the detailed costs of sewage treatment and a new firehall, and we’ll see if the new bridge and Downtown’s two-way bike lanes work as promised. If all that news is bad, the mayor may have to wait before diving into a new pool.
Award-winning journalist Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, a former editor of Monday Magazine, and the author of Victoria: The Unknown City.