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Can the Temescal Canyon pool still be saved?

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy went too far when it buried the pool in Temescal Canyon.

February 02, 2009|April Smith | April Smith is a television writer/producer and the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mysteries. Her most recent book is "Judas Horse."

We can now add another beloved Los Angeles institution to the list of the disappeared. On Jan. 8, the Palisades-Malibu YMCA Temescal Canyon swimming pool was buried under tons of pea gravel, despite passionate community protest.

For half a century, the Palisades-Malibu Y had leased the pool from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for $1 a year. In return, the Y provided a unique outdoor aquatics center. It was funky, but we liked it that way. Anyone willing to brave cinder-block walls and open showers was rewarded by swimming in nature -- hawks, deer and gray fog over the canyon made workouts inspiring. Friendships went far beyond the lane lines. The joke was that you could find anything "at the pool," from pet sitters to recipes to rides to the doctor.

Lap swimmers, first-timers and former Olympians, youth teams, the disabled and the elderly, inner-city summer-camp kids and attendees at Sunday "Family Splash" barbecues all found physical challenge and emotional solace in the pool. Generations grew up around that vintage concrete deck.

Then, a year ago, the pipes gave out. The rest of the structure was determined to be "grossly stable" by environmental engineers, who said it would cost $400,000 to get the pool's 50-year-old arteries up and running again. The Y was committed to raising the money for the repairs and to maintaining the pool, which has been central to its membership. But the executive director of the conservancy, Joe Edmiston, decided Temescal Canyon shouldn't have a pool at all.

Edmiston is the Santa Monica Mountains czar whom Los Angeles magazine has characterized as "L.A.'s most powerful unelected official." "Unrivaled in his protection of open space," the magazine added, "he has antagonized both property rights advocates and environmentalists." In 1980, he founded the conservancy, a state agency, and he's been in charge ever since.

In a December memo that Edmiston wrote to the conservancy board and advisory committee, he trotted out a slew of legalities that added up to this absurdity: A pool whose mission and value had been clear for decades suddenly couldn't be justified without applying "appropriate planning procedures." Besides, he wrote, the space it occupied was needed for at-risk-youth programs.

The battle to save the pool has been spearheaded by Friends of the Temescal Pool, an ad hoc volunteer group that collected 2,000 signatures on petitions demanding a stay of execution and a satisfactory explanation -- which was never forthcoming -- of why the pool wouldn't obviously be part of the conservancy's long-term plan for the canyon. Seventy individuals wrote letters of protest. "Save Our Pool" lawn signs sprouted in Edmiston's neighborhood.

In December, 250 pro-pool people jammed a nighttime conservancy hearing in Temescal Gateway Park. Parents with strollers, Boy Scouts, inner-city summer-camp kids who came on a chartered bus and scores of seniors overflowed the room and stood outside as one speaker after another made impassioned pleas to reopen the pool. The meeting went past midnight. For our commitment, we were termed "whiny elitists" by a member of the conservancy.

The board voted to start a planning process that might include the pool, but in the meantime, it also decided to seek a permit from the Coastal Commission to bury the pool. On Jan. 8, with no public notice, the bulldozers arrived.

"We had a liability sitting there with an empty pool," Edmiston's deputy, Lisa Soghor, told me when I called to ask why. "We had incidents of the fences being cut and spray-painting inside the pool area. The YMCA gave up their lease and walked away because they didn't want to handle the liability." A five-year lease had been on offer, she said, but the Y "didn't want to make the investment."

That's not what I had witnessed at the meeting in December, when Carol Pfannkuche, executive director of the Palisades-Malibu YMCA, made a 10-minute statement asking the conservancy to let the Y fix the pool and reopen.

Soghor is being disingenuous. The problem isn't liability and who will assume it, rather it's that for the Y (or anyone else), the conservancy's five-year-lease proposal made no sense. Would you invest $400,000 in a house you could only rent for five years?

So now the pool rests under a perfect rectangle of green grass. It could be excavated and repaired if the conservancy would listen to the community. Because testimony and petitions didn't get its attention, the Friends of Temescal Pool has filed a lawsuit (swimming lawyers, picture that!), alleging that the public funding behind the conservancy carries with it an obligation to maintain the pool.

The loss of the pool is comparable to last year's demise of Dutton's Books in Brentwood or the decline of Santa Monica's landmark Sand & Sea Club on Pacific Coast Highway, which lay empty for more than a decade before citizens were able to spark its current reconstruction, with the help of more than $25 million from the Annenberg Foundation.

Humans need such gathering places, such monuments. We need community anchors, and when they are gone, we float, disconnected.

I am convinced my novels and teleplays were mostly written as I swam back and forth in sunshine and rain for 15 years with the "masters" team at the Temescal Canyon pool. My protagonist, FBI Special Agent Ana Grey, swims there too. Or at least she did. It is a source of life to which this character returns.

A storied place can be resurrected -- even improved. The Temescal Canyon battle isn't over.

It took two weeks to fill the pool and cover it with dirt and grass, but we can dig it out again. Even, many of us feel, if we have to do it with our bare hands.

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