Students, parents, and community members rally on Sunday to reopen Willard Pool. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

About 75 people rallied on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Derby Street in Berkeley Sunday afternoon to convince the City Council to put a pool bond measure on the November ballot.

Holding signs that read “Save Willard Pool,” and “Honk if you like to swim,” the group of students, parents, and community members yelled, chanted, and encouraged people to sign a petition that called for the reopening of Willard pool, which was closed and filled with dirt in 2010. (The petition is also posted at

“I would like to see Willard Pool open again,” said Amelie Melde Fontenay, a parent of a Willard School student. “My only son got here just in time to see the pool filled in with dirt. I don’t think it’s fair that the other two (middle) schools have pools and Willard doesn’t.”

The protest rose out of an assignment that Maggie Knutsen gave to her fifth-grade students at John Muir Elementary School. Knutsen was planning to teach them how to write a persuasive essay and wanted to root it in real-world problems. She presented a number of Berkeley issues to her class, and they chose to focus on the state of the pools in Berkeley. Knutsen then invited Robert Collier, one of the co-chairs of Measure C, the unsuccessful June 2010 measure to raise funds for area pools, to talk to the class. The idea of holding a rally to protest Willard’s closure came from that discussion, she said.

Odessa Newman, 11, Allyn Suzuki, 11, Caroline Hall, 11 (top) and Berenabas Gethun, 11 and came to the pool rally on Sunday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Knutsen’s students were well represented Sunday, as were students from Emerson, Malcolm X and other south Berkeley schools.

“I love Willard Pool,” said Caroline Hall, 11, a fifth grader at Malcolm X. “I believe next year when I go here, there should be a pool so we can have fun. What’s a rectangle with dirt in it good for?”

The protesters are facing daunting odds. While the city council is planning to discuss a pool ballot measure on Tuesday, it only addresses the question of whether to build a new $10.5 million warm pool at the West Campus on University Avenue. The proposed bond measure under discussion does not include funds to reopen Willard or refurbish any other area pools.

Part of the reason for the proposed bond measure’s narrow focus is because a recent citywide survey showed lukewarm support for a comprehensive refurbishment of the pools. Lake Research Partners conducted a survey on behalf of the city from March 14 to 19. The research firm asked 430 likely voters about their willingness to pay higher property taxes to fund $523 million in deferred maintenance on roads, parks, pools, sewers, seismic retrofits of city buildings and other projects. Only 29% of those surveyed thought fixing the city pools was a high priority. Only improving the area around the marina had less support. Paving and fixing streets and improving the storm drains had the highest support, with 68% of the respondents saying they were a high priority.

When asked specifically about two proposals – to spend $500,000 to repair existing pools or spend $22 million to do the repair, reopen Willard, and build a new warm pool – the support was below the two-thirds needed to win in an election.

The mid-March survey of likely voters indicated that there is not a two-thirds majority, the amount required by law, to pass a new bond measure to repair the city’s pools.
The mid-March survey of likely voters indicated that there is not a two-thirds majority, the amount required by law, to pass a new bond measure to repair the city’s pools.

Pool supporters are critical of  the wording of the survey, saying the questions were asked out of context and implied that much of the money would be used to build new facilities rather than refurbish existing ones.

“The survey was very deceptive,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington as he held up a banner at Sunday’s rally. “The questions were slanted.”

The City Council on Tuesday will consider whether to do another phone survey to likely voters as part of a process to see what bond measures voters might pass. Those at the rally were hoping to persuade the council to include better worded questions about residents’ willingness to pay for an ambitious pool project.

An old lifeguard chair stands lonely sentinel over a filled-in Willard pool. The plants in the front are the remnants of a winter garden planted by students. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“What do we ask the Council to do?” reads a post on the website of the Berkeley Pools Campaign.  “While emails and phone calls are flying fast and furious among pools’ activists, the emerging consensus seems to be a two-part request to Council:

  1. Reword the four-pools option to include the essential information that Willard and Warm pools have been closed permanently, with the latter soon to be demolished, and that the proposal is to rebuild and re-open them.
  2. Ask for a Warm Pool-only question to be posed, with no mention of the other pools.

More than $100m needed for parks, rec and waterfront [09.29.11]
Will Willard Pool become a vegetable garden? [03.14.11]
Willard swimming pool now filled with mud [01.05.11]
Comment: Voting on Measure C shows a city split [07.01.10]
Swimmers lament today’s closing of Willard Pool [06.30.10]
Last gasp bid to save Willard Pool eyes city subsidies [06.29.10]
Pools majority falls short: closures expected [06.09.10]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...