January 7, 2014

Council seeks grant to upgrade Merced park; proposal would replace pool with splash pad

The city will apply for a $719,467 Housing-Related Parks Program grant from the California Department of Housing and Community Development to be used on south Merced’s Stephen Leonard Park. Some area leaders and residents don’t like the plan to remove the pool.

A south Merced park will get an upgrade later this year that includes replacing its pool with a splash pad – an idea that has irked some.

Merced City Council voted 5-2 this week to move forward with the plans as they are and apply for a $719,467 grant for a face-lift for Stephen Leonard Park.

“It’s noncompetitive,” said Joey Chavez, the city’s recreation supervisor. “If you do your homework, do it right on your application, it’s guaranteed money.”

Chavez said the amount of money awarded could be lower than what is being requested for upgrades on the 2.7-acre park on Seventh and T streets, but he expects to get some funding.

The grant money would come from the Housing-Related Parks Program of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Merced is eligible because it completed two low-income housing projects in the area, Woodbridge and Gateway Terrace.

A 2004 city plan adopted by the then-Parks and Recreation Commission calls for the pool to be replaced by a splash pad, which is a fountain in which people can play. Chavez said the splash pad has a number benefits over a pool – it requires less maintenance, can remain open longer hours and does not require the supervision of lifeguards.

The pool is also in disrepair, needing a $20,000 liner and a $7,000 lift to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Chavez said.

A splash pad, however, cannot be used for swimming lessons, a fact not lost on the Parks and Recreation Commission. That advising body voted against replacing the pool with the splash pad.

Flip Hassett, who’s on the commission, said the cost of repairs is no excuse because it’s the city’s fault for the pool’s dilapidated condition. “They pretty much engineered obsolescence,” Hassett said. “They didn’t keep it up for the last three or four years.”

Hassett noted that the park is across the street from Margaret Sheehy Elementary School and housing, where there are many children that could use swimming lessons. Teaching children to swim is important to Hassett, who lost his 4-year-old granddaughter to accidental drowning in a hot tub in March.

In California, 58 children under the age of 5 drowned in 2011, according to the most recent numbers from a state Department of Health report. Thirty of the children lost their lives in a pool.

The grant funds are based on park acreage per 1,000 residents in a census tract. According to city staff, the area around Leonard and McNamara parks has fewer than three park acres per 1,000 people. That made them worth the most in grant funding of any city parks.

Isai Palma, the administrative coordinator for Building Healthy Communities, attended a number of the planning meetings for the Leonard Park’s upgrades. He said the pool could provide children in the newly built low-income housing with a place to learn to swim. He said many of them don’t have transportation.

“I know there’s a lot of work being done to fix a lot of the bike systems that we have,” Palma said. “At this point, the bikeway systems in south Merced are not going to be adequate.”

Other planned additions to the park include a skate park, restroom building, playground equipment, climbing rocks, security cameras and bike racks. The project would include benches, lights, drinking fountains, building repair and painting, sprinkler controllers, tables, trees and sidewalks.

McNamara is already seeing upgrades from a $2.6 million state grant awarded last year. Both parks are surrounded by some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

“I’m just really pleased that they’re upgrading and doing something in the community,” said Tamara Cobb, who lives in the area.

Cobb said she understands that money is tight in Merced, so she’s happy to accept an upgrade even if it means no pool at Leonard Park. Besides, “you can’t have everything,” she said.

McNamara Park, which offers swimming lessons in the summer, is about a mile east of Leonard Park. The high schools in Merced are also options for those who need lessons.

The grant application for Leonard Park must be submitted to the state by Jan. 22. The council does not meet again until the day before.

Councilman Michael Belluomini, who voted for the plans, said even if the council wanted to it’s probably too late to study another option that would include the pool.

“I think basically we’re out of time,” he said. “It’s a lot of money. We would not want to lose it.”

Council members Mike Murphy and Noah Lor voted against moving forward with the plans, saying they would rather look at costs for fixing the pool before making a final decision.

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