Council reopens discussions on potential Bellevue aquatic center

It’s a topic brought up from the depths of Bellevue City Council past.

A regional aquatic center in Bellevue found itself at the center of discussion at an extended study session Monday night, more or less for the first time since a 2009 study found that the Eastside might be interested in one.

As with many items on recent agendas, the council was split during its study session by financing.

The feasibility study, the results of which were released in 2010, found there was a significant demand for an Eastside aquatic center in Bellevue, but not as much in Kirkland or Redmond, placing the project on the back-burner.

Councilmember Jennifer Robertson, who admits her children were avid swimmers and thus may be biased in favor of the aquatic center, was the biggest proponent.

“I have a keen interest in aquatics,” she said. “And there is a dire need for more water options on the Eastside. The demand has only continued to grow since the study.”

Bellevue currently operates one public pool and a warm-water therapy pool. Those were accepted from King County and built, respectively, in 1995 and 1997. The city also operates six seasonal swim beaches, a canoe and kayak program and a boat launch. There are also eight aging neighborhood pools (all built between 1959 and 1964), two nonprofit-operated pools and four private fitness club pools.

According to city data, more than 4,200 Bellevue families are involved at least somewhat in competitive swimming, including high school, middle school, youth and adult swimming competitions. Any project would likely have four separate-but-related items on its wish list.

First would be a leisure/recreational pool for families, then an instructional/fitness pool for life-saving programs, a warm therapy pool and a pool fit for competition, including swimming, diving and water polo.

Councilmember Conrad Lee said the list was fine, but he wanted to keep it within budget constraints.

“The bottom line is we want a lot of stuff,” he said. “We have to make sure we don’t lose our other priorities.”

City staff presented this information and asked for direction on whether to move forward with additional feasibility studies. Examples of similar concepts were presented, including the $25 million Lynnwood Rec Center and Pool, the $25 million Rainier Beach Community Center and Pool and the $34 million Sammamish Community and Aquatic Center.

This last example was a sticking point for Councilmember Kevin Wallace, who believed the cost would be far too high for a realistic solution. He said the Parks department had too much on its plate already.

“We’re not going to be able to fund all the parks capital projects with the park levy funds,” he said. “I think it’s unrealistic. We do not have the resources to do this on our own.”

The Sammamish project was financed mostly with city money, $25 million worth. The YMCA, which operates the pool, kicked in $5 million. Private sources helped fund the rest.

However, that pool has only a 25-yard pool for competitions, and Councilmembers Robertson and Ernie Simas mentioned the desire for a full competitive pool, a 50-meter one with diving depth, which would raise costs.

There is currently no money set aside for any such project, and council ultimately decided to allow staff to move forward with the study and to look for partnerships, ideally with Kirkland, Redmond and perhaps King County and the Bellevue School District.

There is no competition-level pool in Bellevue. Despite this, teams from Interlake, Newport, Bellevue and Sammamish high schools compete at a high level. They use private pools to train.

To fund such a project, Bellevue Parks and Community Service Director Patrick Foran said there would have to be a voter initiative specifically for the aquatic center. The Parks department currently gets about $12 million each year for capital projects. Some other projects on its agenda include “The Grand Connection” and the Meydenbauer Bay beach project.

Robertson said a project of this sort was long overdue.

“I support moving forward whether it’s going alone or in a partnership,” she said.

There is no specific timeline for any public aquatic center. City staff will move forward with cost studies both for going it alone and with a partnership.

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