Politics & Government

New People’s pool on Tacoma’s Hilltop set to open in 2016

After a long closure, Tacoma city leaders say the pool at People’s Community Center will open in 2016.

The pool closed suddenly in 2008 when Metro Parks Tacoma discovered serious structural problems. The city and the parks agency have worked since then to open its doors again.

Located in the heart of the Hilltop neighborhood at the People’s Community Center at South 17th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the new pool will have recreational water features for all ages, said Fletcher Jenkins, president of the People’s Center steering committee.

“When we lost it due to decay and so forth, it really hurt us,” Jenkins said. “A number of minority kids in our community don’t even know how to swim, and there’s no facility in the area for that.”

Nationwide, about 70 percent of African-American youths and 60 percent of Latino children have low or no swimming ability, compared with 40 percent of white youths, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.

The new pool will cost $7.1 million, of which $5 million will come from the city of Tacoma. The city will demolish the old pool, and what emerges will not resemble the former structure.

“The nickname (of the old pool) was ‘the dungeon,’ ” said Jim Biles, aquatics supervisor for Metro Parks Tacoma. “There was no lighting whatsoever. It was a diamond in the rough because not a lot of people knew about it.”

The new pool will be visible from South 17th Street, and its wide windows will take advantage of ample natural light, Biles said.

It will have three lap lanes, an indoor spray pad and a small “lazy river” feature. One part of the pool will be shallower, starting at 2 feet.

Jenkins said the new features will encourage youths to learn to swim at a younger age.

Metro Parks Tacoma will operate the pool while the city of Tacoma will own it. Metro Parks also operates the Eastside Pool, which is owned by Tacoma Public Schools.

The old pool had six 25-yard lanes and two diving boards. It was a popular spot in the summer and often reached more than 100 swimmers on hot days. Employees from nearby hospitals would swim laps on their lunch hour, Biles said.

But this pool was more than just a place to cool off. It represented a promise from Tacoma’s nearly all-white city government to the mostly black residents of the Hilltop after the Mother’s Day riot of 1969.

That night and into the next morning, Hilltop residents and police clashed after officers tried to arrest a black woman. Businesses were vandalized. A policeman was shot. Then-City Manager David Rowlands ordered officers to back off so black leaders could persuade the crowd to calm down.

In the subsequent days and weeks, the City Council talked with the Hilltop community about how to move forward. On May 20, 1969, the council held a study session, and 400 people packed the Hilltop Youth Activities Center.

“A swimming pool for the Hilltop area was urged as one way to keep restless youngsters off the streets,” The News Tribune reported.

The Malcolm X Center, as the community center was known back then, opened in 1978. The pool followed one year later.

When the new pool opens, Jenkins said students from area schools will be able to come by during the day for classes. Elderly residents, too, could use it for exercise and therapy.

He said neighborhood residents will no longer have to catch a bus if they want to go for a swim. “We can go right to our community center and utilize the pool.”

City Councilwoman Lauren Walker said she’s worked to get the pool reopened since she learned of its closure. Since then, the city and Metro Parks have talked with residents in the Hilltop about what they want in a new pool.

“I always maintained my optimism that the pool would be restored to the neighborhood,” Walker said.