ASHEVILLE – Expansions to the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Center are moving forward following City Council authorization of a $6.7 million contract for the project, which will include a new pool, gymnasium and basketball courts for the Southside community, though some residents of the historically Black neighborhood said city outreach has been lacking.
The pool will replace the segregation-era Walton Street Pool, which closed last year after 83 years, in large part due to costly mechanical and structural problems.
Officials in 2017 said the pool would require at least $1.3 million to fix and bring it up to date.
City spokesperson Polly McDaniel said it was “at the end of its life.”
According to Christo Bubenik, program and operations manager with Asheville Parks and Recreation, the last summer the pool was open for a full season was 2015.
Following multiple consecutive years of significant repairs, a professional assessment of Walton Street Pool in 2016 found the infrastructure deficient with major leaks and failing underground pipes. The investigation concluded repairs and renovations will no longer extend the useful life of the facility, Bubenik said.
He said it was important to balance the historical significance of Walton Street Pool with the neighborhood’s need for a modern, safe swimming pool and other high-quality recreational spaces.
But some Southside residents, such as Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson, said the city response and outreach has not been enough. She’s been active in efforts to save the pool, and feels “disheartened” and unheard by the Asheville Parks and Recreation and city leadership.
“It’s a relief to move forward with the project,” said Jade Dundas, capital projects director with the city. “Being able to see new building infrastructure is really exciting, and it’s an investment in the community.”
The existing building, a recreation center that opened in 2010, is 7,466 square feet. The expansion will add 13,116 feet, including a 3,275 square foot pool.
In addition to the pool and gymnasium, there will be expanded multipurpose space for programming.
“It’s significant,” McDaniel said of the new pool planned for the Grant Center. The recreation center sits six blocks to the north on Livingston Street.
Once constructed, it will be one of only three city pools, and replace the need in that area, she said.
City plans to honor history ‘not enough’
Incorporated into the project are plans to honor the history of the Walton Street Pool, McDaniel said.
Bubenik said the city’s Historic Resources Commission is working with people in the neighborhood and community organizers to identify interest in applying for a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and/or a local landmark designation that will guide the redevelopment of the pool area and adjacent building.
During that time, the ballfield, shelter, playground, basketball court and parking lot may simultaneously proceed with bond-funded enhancements, and the park may see additional amenities including walking trails and other enhancements, he said.
He said the department intends for the process of honoring the pool’s legacy to be shaped by the community, be it new public art, reuse of elements from the existing pool or interpretative signs.
Though she is aware of the city speaking with another group of residents from Southside, Robinson said she and the “initial” community members who were advocating for renovation were not contacted.
Robinson, 60, grew up in Southside frequenting the pool and working there over the summer. A landmark of the community, she said some overlook the sentimental value of the site.
Now, passing by, it’s an “eyesore,” she said, a blighted lot of pitted concrete and chain link fence.
“When I walk by, it just brings back memories of how much life was there, life around it, life in it,” Robinsons said. “And now when I drive by, it’s sad to see that it’s just completely dead.”
Though she has heard rumors of a memorial being planned at the site, she does not feel the city has been “open, honest and transparent.”
“All of our history, all of the Black history, pretty much has been erased,” she said. “And it’s like we never existed, or we’re not existing here.”
Project design for the expansion of the Grant Center began in 2018 following approval of the $74 million bond referendum, $17 million of which was dedicated to parks and recreation.
The city has until November 2023 to deliver bond projects.
The expansion’s initial price tag was about $4.7 million, but climbing material costs raised the project cost about $2 million, Dundas said.
Initial plans did not include a pool, but in September 2019, City Council authorized an amendment to the Grant Center design contract to include a new outdoor pool facility to replace the failing Walton Street Pool.
Though intended to move forward in 2021, council indicated a desire for more community and council engagement. The project was rebid in December, and Greenville, South Carolina-based Harper General Contractors has been selected for the contract.
Included in the construction is a full solar array for the roof of the gymnasium, which will generate upward of 60% of the building’s energy use.
Dundas said construction is expected to begin spring 2022 and last about 14 months. He hopes the center will open by summer or fall of 2023.
“I think this does just represent what we can do with bond funding,” Dundas said. “We’re excited to deliver projects. That’s what we do. We want to get out there and build stuff.”
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.