Bruce Morris tries to find out exactly what IS happening with the Mt Albert Aquatic Centre… and whether we’ll have a public pool in the decades ahead.
The Great Swimming Pool Saga continues to bubble away, with Auckland Council now muddying the waters by suggesting the existing aquatic centre may have a long-term future in the Mt Albert Grammar School grounds.
That’s a surprise to people closest to the action, and certainly to MAGS, which more or less says “over our dead body”.
The school is under pressure now to find space for its growing roll and ambitions, and would like to see the public pool shut as early as five years or so. As the landowner via the Ministry of Education, it holds most of the cards.
The simmering issue emerged publicly last week during the debate over the council’s 10-year plan, which confirmed money has been committed to provide two new pools – one in the north-west of the city and the other in the inner-west.
As reported in Mt Albert Inc, there was reference in the budget docuhments to an “indicative business case” report that the inner-west pool be sited in Whau. That means New Lynn or Avondale, and seemed to dash hopes of a new pool in Mt Albert to replace the deteriorating aquatic centre.
But things aren’t always quite as they seem.
Albert-Eden-Roskill councillor Cathy Casey demanded answers to the Mt Albert Inc story and got an interesting response. She discovered the pool spend in the budget related to “new” pools, with money apparently also available to sustain the existing aquatic centre at a fresh location… or at its present spot in the school grounds.
Well, that’s what a senior officer said anyway.
The council’s manager of community policy, Liz Civil, said in a statement that an investigation had found a new aquatic and recreation centre was needed in Whau – as well as “continued aquatic provision in Mt Albert”.
The report was clear, she said, that while Mt Albert residents were likely to benefit from a Whau pool, it would not eliminate the need for a Mt Albert centre. Ongoing maintenance and renewals were planned and budgeted to allow the facility to support continued services beyond the next decade.
Ms Civil said council staff were currently working with the Albert Eden Local Board, Mt Albert Grammar School Board of Trustees and Mt Albert Grammar School Community Swimming Pool Trust to determine the best approach to securing the long-term future of a pool in Mt Albert.
“This could involve an aquatic facility at a new location, or investment to maintain provision at the current site.”
Well, that certainly seemed encouraging for people wanting to retain a public pool here. But in the place it has sat for the last 20 years – does that really stack up?
MAGS headmaster Patrick Drumm is adamant the aquatic centre is on borrowed time anywhere in the school grounds and it will be gone as soon as possible.
If Mt Albert is to get a replacement pool, it will plainly be built elsewhere.
- The centre was planned in the 90s and built in 1998. Two years later, girls were welcomed to MAGS, gradually pushing the roll from 1400 then to more than 3000 now (and potentially closer to 4000 in a decade). That has put pressure on space and the Ministry of Education-owned land is needed for school purposes. On top of that, the school has no control over the big crowds using the pool, and the carpark can only be reached by driving through the grounds, posing safety and security issues.
- The pool is administered by a trust – two members appointed by the school, two by the local board, with an independent chair – and was built via a council grant.
- The land is leased, with a 25-year right of renewal. However, with appropriate notice, the school (through the ministry) has the right to over-ride the lease if the land is required for educational purposes.
- Strictly speaking, the council does not own the pool (which is why there’s no free entry for children) and an outside company manages it under contract. However, the council does maintain it as a community amenity.
- The aquatic centre became a leaky building and the council was required to repair it, allocating $10m for the job. But with the school then anxious to get back the land sooner rather than later, the trust opted for a medium-term solution – spending $3.2m on a part refurbishment, sufficient to provide a 10-year “life” from its 2015 completion date.
- That life term is up in 2025 and the community has generally considered it to be the deadline. But the school, with its pressing concerns over space, would ideally like it gone well before then.
Now, out of nowhere, the council seems to have decided there’s the chance of long-term life in the aquatic centre and, as one of its options, is considering spending quite a few million to future-proof it.
If the argument is accepted that Mt Albert needs a public pool for the decades ahead, upgrading the aquatic centre may be attractive to a cash-strapped council; spending perhaps $12m on a full refurbishment makes more economic sense than investing $25m or $30m on a brand new facility.
But when the landowners can’t be compelled to play ball – and that certainly is the case here, for good reason – then it will not happen.
Mr Drumm simply says MAGS needs its land back, and the sooner the better. To him, 2022 or 2023 sounds better than 2025, though the school recognises the value of the community asset and will be reasonable in any negotiations.
While the trust did receive a council report earlier in the year, it reported the likelihood that a new pool would be built in Whau, most likely in Avondale – taking away the chance of a replacement aquatic centre in the redevelopment plans for Chamberlain Park.
But, says Mr Drumm, no mention was made of any proposal to spend more money at the existing pool to give it a life well into the future.
“That is straight out of left field,” he says.
While the school may be interested in retaining the lane pool – for training, exercise, swimming and sports like water polo – it sees no future for the main “fun” complex, including wave pool and slides, that draws the big “walk-up” crowd.
Mr Drumm says the number of people using the centre (around 340,000 visits a year at last count) poses major health and safety concerns for the school, with high traffic flows in Alberton Ave and the MAGS grounds.
So that definitely spells the end of the Mt Albert Aquatic Centre as we know it, leaving the other option: a new location.
The Unitec land is often raised as a possibility, but the council doesn’t own that and, even if part of it were available, the cost would be prohibitive. A city fringe site big enough to take a pool and parking would likely cost upwards of $12m-$15m.
So all eyes are back on the two council-owned sites that could be considered:
- Chamberlain Park, as part of the local board’s redevelopment plan, or
- Extending the existing community and leisure centre operated by the YMCA in the Mt Albert War Memorial Reserve.
Really, they are the only options in the whole Albert-Eden area and there are major hurdles to be cleared – not least the protests of neighbours who will be concerned at the heavy traffic a pool generates – before either can be confirmed.
Until lately, the aquatic centre was expected to be operating until 2025, assuming the 2015 refurbishment lasted the distance. It didn’t seem to be a matter of immediate concern.
But raised voices from the school suggest there is no luxury of time if the aim is to have a new pool open as the old one shuts. The planners may have to accept 2023 or 2024 instead, meaning a site needs to be finalised in the next year or so, with building starting perhaps as early as 2022.
In the end, it will be over to the politicians and the strength of the local voice.
Will Mt Albert get a new pool? Good question for this community to ask candidates at the 2019 local body elections.