By Bruce Morris
Mt Albert Grammar School has drawn a line in the sand over the aquatic centre – it wants it gone in as little as two years, putting huge pressure on Auckland Council to settle on a replacement site.
After years of concern over the pressures posed by a public pool in the school’s Alberton Ave grounds, MAGS has decided enough is enough.
In discussions with the council and the trust that administers the pool, the school is now making its position very clear: it wants the aquatic centre off its land in perhaps two years.
The firm stand comes as the council seeks a five-year lease renewal, which the school is not prepared to endorse.
The wrangle between the school, the council and the trust board that administers the complex is now reaching a head and a result is expected in the next two or three months.
MAGS, which owns the land through the Ministry of Education, is in a powerful position. It says it needs more space for classrooms and that cars moving to and from the popular pool pose major health and safety issues for its burgeoning roll.
The school favours a compromise that would allow it to retain the length pool, which could then become a part-community facility for school use and for “serious” swimmers.
Under that arrangement, the bulk of the complex – the “fun” dimension including the wave pool and slide which draw 65 per cent of the 300,000-plus visitors each year – would go.
The council apparently accepts the aquatic centre cannot continue in the long term in its present form. But it had been hoping to extend the lease for some years to allow a different site to be identified and a new pool built.
The school’s resolute new position puts the council on the spot. While it is committed to providing a pool in Albert-Eden, officers were no doubt working to their own deadline – five or six years away, perhaps.
Even starting now, with no land earmarked, it would surely take three years or longer to get the design, consents and finance (perhaps as much as $30m) in place and the build completed.
In the Albert-Eden area there are just two publicly-owned sites available:
- Chamberlain Park, where the local board is about to move ahead with its plan to cut the golf course in half and create a wider recreational area;
- The Mt Albert War Memorial Reserve where the option is to extend the community and leisure centre operated by the YMCA.
Chamberlain Park seems the logical choice as part of the major overhaul of the land and will probably be favoured. But whatever site is selected, there will be community concerns.
Everyone will want a new pool but no one will want it just down the road; the prospect of hundreds of extra cars a week on local streets like Wairere Ave, Asquith Ave and Linwood Ave will bring seriously raised voices.
Alberton Ave residents, meanwhile, will count their blessings. Three schools in their street mean traffic will always be heavy, but taking the pool visitors away will ease the headache.
The end of the road for the aquatic centre should not come as a surprise to anyone because the limited upgrade finished in 2015 to deal with major building leaks was only designed to last 10 years.
The school has been voicing its concern over the last year or two, but no one, least of all the council, imagined the wave pool and slide complex might have to be be shut by 2021 or 2022.
MAGS headmaster Patrick Drumm says the assumption has always been that the pool is “going, going, gone” as a public facility because the growth of the school roll and the safety issues meant it had outgrown its purpose.
In two years, MAGS will be the biggest school in the country with a roll heading towards 3300, probably reaching 3600 in 2023. It has almost phased out students from outside the zone, but the new farm centre and strong growth within the zone will continue to stoke the roll.
The pool complex carpark is within the grounds and “with 3100 kids moving around the school on the bell every hour, plus 300 staff coming and going and cars entering and exiting using the same entrance we are very concerned from a health and safety perspective whether it is viable at all really,” says the headmaster.
As well, the school needs the land for more classrooms to cope with a roll that has exploded since 2000 (when girls were admitted, two years after the pool was built) from fewer than 1400 pupils.
“It is chaos out there and the aquatic centre is not now fit for purpose,” he says.
Mr Drumm says everything is now coming to a head and he is critical of the ministry for its lack of planning in not providing suitable facilities for future growth.
The ministry took a denial stance to the projections that MAGS was going to reach the sort of numbers that had become a reality, and now a “crunch point” had been reached.
“The repercussions of that go well into the community. It’s not just about MAGS, the pool, traffic management, student movement – it’s all about quality really.
“We have been very frustrated that a school like MAGS, which is enjoying great success, hasn’t been on the radar or taken seriously by the ministry in terms of planning for growth.”
Mr Drumm says the time has been reached where the ministry needs to say, ‘well hang on a minute, the school is growing – one of the fastest growing in-zone schools in NZ and we can’t go through another pool renewal period and hope it will be all right’.”
He poses the question: “How long do you keep a facility like that rolling along with a heads-in-sand approach when we’re growing the school by another 100 or 150 kids a year?”
Mr Drumm says a decision will be reached in the next two or three months and the school was working on a timeline that was the shortest possible.
“Five years is ridiculous and we are looking to bring it back to a shorter time frame, perhaps two years,” he says. “That will send a really strong message that we don’t see it as even a medium term venture let along a long term one.”
So he would be surprised if the pool was still operating in three years the way it is now?
“Absolutely. I just cannot see how that can work and, in fact, it would be negligent of all the parties just to assume that it can.”
It might be possible to shift the parking out to Alberton Ave, or create a new entrance, but the carpark site was needed for future development in the short term.
The status quo “is just absolutely impossible”.
Earlier Mt Albert Inc stories: