This article appeared in the October issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.
On a Thursday afternoon in late August, residents of Brooklyn Heights and surrounding neighborhoods gathered in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge to rally around a modest little pool that, without a stay of execution, would close permanently on Labor Day. The Brooklyn borough president and even a state senator showed up to lend support and address the assembly, which included many children who had learned to swim at the pool during its five short summers.
"When you're raising a family in an urban setting like Brooklyn, it is very hard to find affordable, accessible places to have outdoor play and swimming," local resident Suzanne Quint, founder of a group trying to save the pool, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "This pool has served its community so well... to lose the pool would be a huge blow."
Marc Gordon, a partner in Spacesmith LLP, the firm that designed the pool and surrounding space, echoes Quint's lament, while explaining that the pool was never meant to stay past five years in the first place. He takes the story back to 2011, when plans for the pool were developed. "The park and the pool were built on the East River waterfront in Brooklyn," he says. "That area was mostly industrial, dating back more than 100 years. Eventually most industry left the area and left behind some docks and warehouses that weren't really serving the public good."
Looking to eliminate the eyesore, the city formed the Brooklyn Bridge Development Corporation, a public-private partnership funded mostly by the city, to develop the land and covert it into usable public space.
As part of that larger project, the BBDC hired Spacesmith to design and build a temporary pool on the outer edge of the growing park.
"They had a site that they wanted us to work in where we'd have to deal with some of the development that was already going on," says Gordon, who managed the project. "They wanted to provide the amenity to the community but they realized that at some point development would take over the land where the pool sits. So the site they selected was the furthest from the development they already had planned. Well, now that area is 95 percent developed and it's time for the pool to make way."
Looking across the river from his office in Manhattan, Gordon surveys the industrial corridor that informed the design decisions for what's become known as the pop-up pool.
"It was an interesting project," he says. "It was challenging. We worked with what we had, and came up with some creative solutions to problems the site presented."
The firm's initial inspection of the site uncovered concrete footings and foundations from previous structures, and since the development corporation didn't want to spend more than necessary on a temporary structure, expensive excavation for an in-ground pool was ruled out.
Another obstacle was the busy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which passed by the site, and a local street running beneath the raised roadway.
Of course, some environmental factors worked in the design's favor — including a panoramic view of lower Manhattan, the adjacent river and one of the world's most iconic bridges.
"I think one of the great things about it was being able to incorporate all the site conditions in a way that not only enhanced the design and helped it, but also hid and buried some of the things we wanted to keep out of the design," Gordon says.
To get around the immediate obstacle the concrete posed, an engineer on Gordon's team designed a gunite pool to be placed above ground. A general contractor built the pool, installed raised walkways and backfilled earth and sand to mask the visible frame and make it look like an in-ground pool. "Considering that the pool is right near the East River, we thought it would be fitting to bring in sand and create a beach area with umbrellas and beach chairs where people could actually stick their toes in the sand," Gordon explains.
The sand and soil also visually differentiate the project from a standard municipal pool surrounded by a concrete deck and gave landscapers a place to plant sawgrass between the pool/beach area and a pedestrian path that runs along the river.
"So you've got this natural sawgrass, the beach, the pool. It's a nice combination of natural and urban in the setting," Gordon says.
To further leverage the site's industrial heritage, Gordon's team trucked in shipping containers to create an acoustic and visual barrier between the pool and the expressway. The containers, in addition to being reusable, paid homage to the area's containerized shipping history.
"We incorporated six shipping containers into the design, and actually one of them was used for storage and another for a snack bar," Gordon says. "So the containers baffle the sound and have other uses. It was a really good prefab usage for what we were trying to accomplish on the site."
Additionally, health codes dictated restrooms and changing areas for bathers — temporary pools don't merit a temporary relaxing of health department rules. Spacesmith brought in trailers to address those needs and placed them to the south of the pool and beach.
All of this may seem like a lot of bother for a pool that was basically born to die, but Gordon doesn't see it that way. Nor does Katy Amon, a park planner with the board of parks and recreation in Vancouver, B.C., who has kept a keen eye on the Brooklyn Bridge Park project.
Amon works some 2,400 miles to the west of Gordon, but their ideas about pop-up pools fall in the same philosophical neighborhood. Her city is also gearing up to build one, and she's hoping to find a planning and architecture firm willing to attack her project with the same zeal Spacesmith did in the States, and that residents north of the border will embrace it with the same fervor. Already months into the planning, she and the rest of the department are scouting locations, analyzing data and collecting input from residents and other stakeholders.
"We're in the early stages, so at this point we're not even sure where the ideal location would be," she says. "We're coming up with ideas and recommendations that we'll go back to our board with in the fall. Wherever it is, it'll be temporary — probably five years."
Size-wise, she's imaging a pool that's about the same 30 by 50 feet with child-friendly 3½-foot depth as the Brooklyn pool. But Amon says her department is leaning toward a modular and movable pool with the hope of avoiding the fate — demolition — that awaits Brooklyn's cement shell.
Among the early contenders is a Myrtha Pool, which uses prefab steel walls with laminated hard bond PVC and a PVC fiberglass-reinforced membrane bolted to a concrete foundation. The entire system — with a freestanding wall and rim-flow gutter — is bolted together and joined to a traditional cement bottom. Myrtha is perhaps best known as a maker of competition pools, including those recently used in the Olympics in Rio, but also as a manufacturer of pools for waterparks, hotel and high-rise projects, and learn-to-swim programs.
One big advantage of the movable and reusable pool, she adds, is that choosing the right location today doesn't mean they're tied to that location in the future. That's important to the city and the parks department, as the pop-up pool is only a small piece of a larger fitness and aquatics puzzle.
"In tandem with the pop-up pool, we're also doing a comprehensive aquatic strategy for the city called Van Splash," Amon says. "It's basically an assessment to get a better idea of what the aquatic needs are for the whole city. But the board has been hearing a lot of demand for a pool in the shorter term, so the pop-up stuck out as a really good idea to meet those needs."
Amon's next meeting with the city is slated for October or November. There she'll present her findings and make recommendations to the board. After that, she expects to have a better idea of where the pop-up pool will be built, and what kind of budget the department will have to work with.
"Again, we're looking at something around the scale of what they did in Brooklyn, but until we get input from the board it's a little hard to plan specifics," she says. "In terms of the appetite for spending on a pop-up pool, I think there's a bit more of it because it can be moved to other locations in the future."
BACK TO THE BOROUGH
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Bridge Park pop-up pool faces a shaky future. Neighborhood meetings, pleas from pool-loving parents and even a push from local officials probably won't be enough to hold off the wrecking ball and developers that will come in its wake. As of this writing, it has only a long Labor Day weekend left.
But there is a bit of good news amid the doom. Belinda Cape, a spokesperson for the park who leaves no room for saving the pool beyond the end of summer, conceded to the Eagle that the pool has demonstrated a need in the neighborhood.
"As we head into the pool's final summer as planned," she said, "we look forward to working with our elected officials to secure funds for a permanent swimming pool at Brooklyn Bridge Park."
If that proposed pool gets built, the modest pop-up pool's lasting legacy will extend well beyond its short life brightening a formerly blighted waterfront, and the sister pool it inspired a continent away.
Barrett Kilmer served 12 years as an editor of AB sister publication Aqua and continues to write about the aquatics industry.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "The short but productive lives of temporary pools"