Let the People Vote: A Referendum is Needed on the Crystal Pool

I live four blocks from the Crystal Pool, on the 1300 block of Gladstone Avenue, and have patronized its aquatic facilities and outdoor playground for years. My daughters love the tallness and steepness of the slide, which ranks amongst the most harrowing in the city. I played soccer on the ball field, made picnics, and tossed the frisbee with my friends and family.

But a few years ago, I stopped using the pool. After slipping on the ridiculously slick floors in the men’s shower room for the umpteenth time, and after years of staring nervously at the glass structures that adorn the sketchy-looking skylights, I did like so many Victorians and began taking my kids to the newer and safer pools beyond the city limits – Esquimalt, Gordon Head, and Oak Bay.

Truth be told, the Crystal Pool slipped off my radar for a time, only to reappear when lawn-signs went up in and around my neighbourhood – signs that called for retaining the green space and athletic features that surround the pool.

Why would anyone want to remove green space that is so abundantly enjoyed by the community in and beyond North Park? And why didn’t I know that the pool was slated for redevelopment in the first place?

Those events largely transpired in 2017 and 2018. Since then, the Crystal Pool redevelopment has gone from headache to saga, with no foreseeable end in sight. Along the way, the city has angered and alienated the North Park community, missed out on millions of dollars in federal funding, while continuing to drop the ball on proper consultation.

For those who have not been intimately involved in the Crystal Pool fiasco over the past three years, I offer here a short recap and an evidence-based proposal about how to move forward, solve the crisis, and get the development done in a way that’s satisfactory to the local neighbourhood and wider community. What follows is based upon interviews that I’ve conducted with city councillors, two neighbourhood associations, and multiple community stakeholders.

The City Botched Consultation From the Get-Go

This might sound boring and wonky, but a major source of this kerfuffle is that the city conceptualized the pool redevelopment narrowly as a parks and recreation issue, rather than as complex land-use planning issue that would affect the community in myriad ways. Posters were placed inside the pool that announced community consultation, but no signage was placed on the exterior park grounds, which means that community members (such as myself) who were not in the habit of using the pool, were not even informed that a redevelopment was planned. It also slanted the consultation process toward pool-users and swim clubs at the expense of, say, the local Muslim community that largely used the park’s outdoor features.

Even more jarring, since the pool was seen as a narrow parks and rec issue, green space was immediately sacrificed without consideration for neighbourhood use. (The original plan was to build a new pool next to the current one, where the park and athletic areas currently sit.) This was borderline criminal negligence given the immense value of the Crystal Pool and its athletic features for the North Park neighbourhood. North Park is home to a large population of low-income residents, a growing immigrant community, and marginalized citizens on the 900-block of Pandora for whom the pool and park are essential and accessible public assets.

Botched Consultation has Consequences

The botched consultation process led to the neighbourhood outcry and resultant grass-roots campaign that ground the project to a halt, where it essentially remains today. Divorcing the planning process from community land-use planning, and failing to gauge the values of the neighbourhood, is what triggered this fiasco in the first place. Meanwhile, a pool facility that everyone agrees is dangerous and run-down has continued to operate.

The other important consequence is that the city missed out on millions of dollars in federal funding. One of the poorly grasped aspects of the Crystal Pool redevelopment is that it will be one of the biggest capital outlays in Victoria’s history, rivaling that of the Johnson Street Bridge. I have seen different costing estimates that range from $70 to $90 million. That is an enormous amount of money for a small city to spend, and the project was predicated upon capturing available federal monies. In my various interviews, I am yet to learn how the delayed project will be funded. With the dust still settling from the federal election, it is unclear whether those federal dollars are still available, and if so when and under what conditions. A properly planned redevelopment could have locked down those federal funds.

There’s an Equity Lens to Consider

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that the North Park neighbourhood in general – and the North Park Neighbourhood Association in particular –receives a tiny fraction of what other neighbourhoods and associations receive, in terms of municipal stipends and other funds. There are orders of magnitude in the disparity in resources and amenities enjoyed by North Park vis-à-vis, say, Fairfield. Based on the data I have seen, North Park receives annually around $3,000 in direct funds, some years as high as $17,000, whereas neighbourhoods with community centres receive over $100,000/year in grants and operating costs, in addition to capital funding of over $240,000!

This disparity is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that North Park is home to low-income residents, immigrants, and people experiencing homelessness who are in desperate need of public assistance.

A city that values equitable distribution of public wealth would prioritize greater support for the North Park neighbourhood, along with its under-funded neighbour to the north, Quadra-Hillside.

One of the sources of this resource disparity is that the North Park neighbourhood lacks a community centre. Think of the value that community centres bring to such neighbourhoods as Fernwood, Fairfield, Vic West, and James Bay. Now consider that North Park has no such facility, which means a lack of community programming that could justify the receipt of increased municipal resources.

All of this to say that it makes an abundance of sense – if we think of the Crystal Pool redevelopment as a holistic land-use issue – to set aside a portion of the building as North Park’s community centre, to be run and managed by the North Park Neighbourhood Association. This outcome would go a long way towards redressing resource allocation disparities and promoting neighbourhood equity in the city.

The City Should Take a Holistic and Evidence-Based Approach to Site Selection

One of the most shocking aspects of the pool fiasco over the past several years is the lack of data furnished to the local community about the cost, the social impacts, and the environmental dimensions of the various redevelopment proposals. Numerous proposals have been made about where to site the new pool. I can list at least four that I have come across:

  1. Knocking down the pool and rebuilding it in its current location, and coping with interrupted service for two years
  2. Moving the pool to the old site of the Blanshard elementary school, on the 900-block of Kings Road, which would mean removing the pool from the core of North Park
  3. Moving the pool to the parking lot adjacent to Royal Athletic Park, or even the wedge of land immediately west of the baseball field
  4. Moving the pool to the parking lot of the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre; the land is owned by the city but leased to a private operator. (By the way, that lease was quietly and curiously renewed right in the midst of this pool fiasco.) The idea of a district heating arrangement forms part of this proposal, which thus includes a significant sustainability component.

Given that I am running for city council in this byelection, I have been asked by numerous community members about my preference for the siting of the new pool.

My response? How the hell should I know!!

Given that the city has not established a clear site selection process, nor has it conveyed to the public the capital and operational costs of the various proposals, I (along with everyone else in the city) lack the proper evidence to make an informed decision.

We Need a Public Referendum on the Pool Redevelopment

All of the above brings me to my ultimate and final point: It is not my decision where the pool ends up, nor should it be left to a handful of councillors at city hall. A decision of this magnitude, and a capital decision of this expense, belongs to the voters of Victoria.

The community needs to decide, and the community can decide only if it is provided with detailed proposals, properly costed out, with social and environmental impacts clearly identified. (By contrast, the initial costing analysis of the pool redevelopment did not take into account the cost of interrupted park usage, nor did it account for other social and environmental impacts.)

A referendum would allow the public to decide upon all of the following:

  • Which site makes the most sense, based on cost and community needs
  • Whether green spaces and athletic features are kept at current sizes or expanded
  • The perennial issue of parking-lot size
  • Whether the pool is 25 or 50 metres (a vexing and complex issue, for sure)
  • The social and environmental impacts of various proposals

In closing, I call on the city of Victoria to identify 3-4 site proposals, cost them out, assess them holistically, and put it to Victorians to make the ultimate decision via a referendum. I also call on the city to learn from the mistakes of this botched consultation process and to treat complex land-use issues with the sensitivity and seriousness that they deserve.