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Residents are hot to cool off

Neighbors want access to a school pool near downtown L.A. Officials say that's not easy to do.

August 01, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The water was off-limits. But it certainly seemed somebody was all wet Tuesday afternoon at an Olympic-size swimming pool near downtown Los Angeles.

Was it Vilma Cortez, who was standing outside 3rd Street's new Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, demanding that its high school pool be open to neighborhood kids such as her own three children, who are whiling away the summer sitting in their nearby apartment?

Was it Los Angeles Unified School District administrators, who say the pool is already plenty used by students enrolled in campus summer school programs?

Maybe the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which insists the school pool was never designed for public access and lacks shallow kiddie wading areas, adequate showers and locker facilities?

Or perhaps Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose staff has voiced concern that public access to the pool is impractical from both a safety and liability standpoint?

The $160-million campus, named after the late labor organizer, opened last year. Hailed as a model of how Los Angeles' current voter-financed school construction program can be state of the art, it has a lighted football field and baseball and softball fields, as well as the competition-size swimming pool and classroom space.

But the pool has never been open to the public. And its shimmering blue water has been particularly enticing to those living in nearby low-income apartments who glimpse it through the school fence on hot summer days.

Earlier in the summer, school officials indicated to neighborhood activists that they were negotiating with the city to operate and maintain the pool for after-school recreational swimming. But the issue of recruiting -- and paying -- lifeguards for the pool stalled that proposal.

On Tuesday residents of the neighborhood west of the downtown high-rise district said enough's enough.

"I'm frustrated. My three kids are sitting two blocks from this pool. They're hot -- it doesn't make sense to keep it closed all day long," said Jose Morales, a sidewalk vendor who hawks tamales and ears of corn around the city.

Morales disputed school officials' contention that the pool is being utilized this summer. "Nobody's using it," he complained.

No city or school officials were present at the protest, which drew about two dozen adults and children.

But from his office in the school district headquarters about two blocks from the Contreras Learning Center, Guy Mehula, chief facilities executive, said students indeed are using the pool.

In the meantime, the school is developing a partnership with a local foundation to provide more swimming and water safety classes.

The school district is "working with the city of Los Angeles to provide community access to the pool," Mehula said in a statement.

School officials work with the city to operate pools for the public at Cleveland, Fremont, Venice, Roosevelt and Banning high schools, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, and near the campus of Eagle Rock high.

Along with Contreras Learning Center, the school system is negotiating with the city for a comprehensive agreement for lifeguard services at eight other campus either under construction or in the planning stage, according to district spokeswoman Samantha Koos.

But there are hurdles to be overcome, parks district administrators warned Tuesday.

"What it boils down to is the pool wasn't designed for public access, but for education," Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Jane Kolb said of Contreras Learning Center. "There isn't a place to check valuables, no lifeguard tower -- we're not even sure there would even be enough showers."

Parks officials are looking into creating a junior lifeguard training center at the Contreras site, she said.

"There is a shortage of lifeguards. There's been a shortage for a couple of years. That's why we're looking at working with the school district to have a lifeguard academy."

In the mayor's office at City Hall, Villaraigosa aide Gil Duran said lifeguards aren't the issue at the Contreras Learning Center.

"The pool was not designed for the public," he said. "An Olympic pool is not for splashing around in the shallows. This is a more complex issue that involves public safety and liability. You don't stick little kids in a deep pool," Duran said.

Back at the learning center, residents chanted in Spanish and briefly marched on the sidewalk outside the padlocked pool. Protest organizers said "tall chairs" could be brought in, lifeguards borrowed from other city pools and the Contreras gates thrown open.

"Not having a locker room or showers wouldn't stop these kids. They can walk here in their bathing suits," said Robert Garcia, executive director of the City Project, one of the groups pushing for the pool to be made public.

Nearby, members of the Contreras school's football team sneaked quick glances at the protesters and went about their summertime conditioning.

Their school chants suggested they have pride in their new campus, which has remained remarkably free of graffiti and blight.

Some students want to keep it that way.

"No, the swimming pool should not be opened to everyone," said 14-year-old Jimmy Hernandez, a 9th-grade player. "There might be vandalism. It should be kept for students."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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