West Campus Pool signage
West Campus Pool is one of just two functional pools operated by the city of Berkeley. Photo: Michelle Pitcher

Beginning in October, Berkeley’s West Campus Pool will be open daily, year-round, following an injection of money from the Berkeley City Council.

Weekend hours are coming even sooner, in August, city staff said over the weekend. Historically, community members have been able to access the pool — at 2100 Browning St. — on a limited basis, only on weekdays during the summer season. Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods who have pushed for more access since 2017 say their two-year campaign has been about more than a community pool. It’s been about equity.

The campaign has included inventive touches: Some West Campus Pool supporters took to showing up to City Council meetings in their swim gear — goggles, swim caps and towels around their shoulders — all to advocate for extended hours at the pool.

Swimmers have worn goggles, flippers and towels to multiple City Council meetings in recent years (seen here in May) to advocate for more hours at the West Campus Pool. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Ten years ago, Berkeley operated four community pools, including Willard Pool, which closed in 2011 due to structural problems, and a warm-water pool at Berkeley High School, which became a classroom after a 2010 bond measure failed to bring in more money for operations.

Now, West Campus Pool (named for when Berkeley High was split between two campuses) is one of just two functional pools operated by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront department. It’s a slightly warmer pool than its sister facility, King Pool in North Berkeley, which makes it optimal for seniors and kids who are learning to swim, supporters say. It also has a large parking lot and an almost completely flat grade.

But King Pool is open year-round and boasts a considerably higher budget than West Campus — approximately $600,000 compared to West Campus’s $240,000. King is a colder pool by design, making it ideal for competitive lap swimming, and its sloped pool floor renders it practically unusable for water aerobics classes. It has one ADA-accessible entrance and no dedicated parking.

“The question we’ve asked all along is, how did you decide which pool gets the money?” Rebecca Burke, a retired teacher and lifelong swimmer who has led the push to extend the pool’s hours, told Berkeleyside. “This community deserves attention too. This is about providing equitable services to all parts of Berkeley.”

The fight for extended pool hours began when Burke decided to circulate a petition in 2017. Within about a week, 200 community members had signed on.

Over the next two years, Burke and other supporters emailed and called City Council members, wrote letters, filed public information requests and spoke at council meetings. Their campaign gained enough ground that City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley drew up a report at their request, assessing the feasibility of keeping the West Campus Pool open year-round.

West Campus Pool pool photo by Michelle Pitcher
The West Campus Pool has historically only been open during limited weekday hours. Photo: Michelle Pitcher

But a few things stood in their way and posed a significant stumbling block for city officials who were sympathetic to the cause: the budget for 2018-19 had already been set, and the City of Berkeley doesn’t actually own the pools.

The parks department leases the pools from the Berkeley Unified School District, so the city has limited ability to make upgrades or significant changes to the structures. The only way to make these changes happen is to write it into the budget and receive the City Council’s approval.

After District 2 representative Cheryl Davila brought forward the issue, Mayor Jesse Arreguín agreed to move ahead with a budget increase.

Last month, at its bi-annual 2020-21 budget meeting, the City Council allocated an additional $292,127 to the West Campus Pool. The amount, the largest general fund increase during the tenure of current parks department director Scott Ferris, will finally make possible the extended hours.

The new budget allows the pool to be open four hours a day, seven days a week. The structure of the schedule is flexible, said Ferris — the hours can be in the morning, in the evening or varied from day to day.

West Campus Pool community meeting photo Michelle Pitcher
Parks department head Scott Ferris addresses a crowd of about 40 people at a community meeting at the West Campus Pool on July 27, 2019. Photo: Michelle Pitcher

On July 27, about 40 residents — largely a mix of seniors and adults with children — attended a poolside community meeting to hear about the city’s plan for the new schedule.

An overwhelming majority supported the idea of free swimming lessons for disadvantaged kids and their parents. A few recommended revenue-generating programs like movie nights in the pool or partnering with surrounding schools. Some suggested relying on certified volunteers to expand the hours even further without racking up additional costs.

The matter of scheduling was a bit more complex. Several meeting attendees were longtime members of the Aquamates, a senior water aerobics class that takes place at West Campus Pool every weekday during the summer. They pushed for daily morning hours to allow for an accessible, consistent time for their class. Younger attendees called for evening hours to accommodate school-aged kids and adults who work 9-5 jobs. Several supported a staggered schedule, with morning hours some days and evening hours others.

Mori Costantino, who has been coming to the pool for 35 years and whose daughters worked as lifeguards there, emphasized the importance of having a safe place for kids to come in the summertime.

“We need to develop programs here that will really nurture this neighborhood, which is neglected in this town,” Costantino said. “The black and brown community isn’t represented at this meeting, but they are a really important part of this. I really want this to be accessible for them.”

Several attendees expressed similar sentiments, agreeing that the new hours provided a unique opportunity to bring people to the pool who had never had the chance to use it before.

“This is a public utility, and it should serve as many people as possible,” said Mike Davis, who attended the meeting with his young daughter. “It’s a public resource.”

Councilwoman Davila, who also attended the meeting, said she preferred a staggered schedule, one that is “flexible for all communities.”

The city will continue to take feedback for another month on its website. In mid-August, the pool will launch its new weekend hours. Weekday hours will continue as usual until the end of September, and the new year-round hours will take effect in October.

The new schedule will be publicized on signs around the pool, online and emailed to anyone who has attended a community meeting or submitted feedback online. Ferris said the new schedule will not be set in stone, and the city is willing to adjust it according to community feedback.

“We’re so ecstatic,” Ferris said. “We have a lot of public meetings, and this was a good one. Everybody was really happy that we’re opening the pool and doing a public process. We can’t make everybody happy, so the public process gets a little more difficult from here on out. But it’s generally a wonderful thing for the city and this community.”

The West Campus Pool is located at 2100 Browning St. (at Addison Street).