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Victoria residents to decide if Crystal Pool will be replaced

Council voted unanimously to hold a referendum on borrowing $168.9 million to build a new pool and fitness facility.

The fate of Crystal Pool and whether the city should borrow $168.9 million to build a replacement will be left up to the residents of Victoria.

Victoria council on Thursday voted unanimously to have residents choose via referendum on whether money should be borrowed to build a new pool and fitness facility to replace the 53-year-old Crystal Pool.

Council also tasked the public with choosing between two replacement options: building on the existing pool site or building beside the existing pool in the hope of keeping the pool open during construction.

A feasibility study released this week suggested the cost of replacing Crystal Pool will be $209.2 million to $232.9 million.

Councillors were adamant that the public needed to have a say in the process. “This is a decision that is too big for nine people to make. We work for the public and we need direction from the public,” Coun. Jeremy Caradonna said.

“I think a referendum’s an excellent way to do this. It’s clear that we’re listening to the public,” Coun. Dave Thompson said. “It’s going to be up to the voters to either support it or reject it.”

Mayor Marianne Alto admitted she wished the council back in 2017 had made the decision to go ahead with a pool replacement when the cost was estimated at $70 million. “If we had, we’d been swimming in this pool now,” she said. “For those of us who were here at that point that was a profoundly disappointing time.”

Alto said she’s not sure this is the right time to be spending $200 million on a recreation centre, but she is happy for the public to make that decision.

A referendum could be held as early as the first quarter of 2025.

Caradonna made the motion to add a second replacement option to the referendum question. He suggested adding the “Central Park South” option, where there are sports courts and a playground adjacent to the pool.

A staff report recommended building on the existing site, called the “Central Park North” option, rather than the playground or the parking lot at 940 Caledonia Ave, currently home to the supportive housing project known as Caledonia Village.

The staff report noted the existing site is the most economical and efficient option, which translates into a shorter construction timeline with reduced complexity and risk. The existing site option is estimated to cost $209.2 million and would take five to six years to build.

City staff have recommended using $30 million from the city’s debt reduction reserve to bring down the borrowing cost, and Thursday council voted to use $17 million from its parking reserve fund to offset some of the cost of the project’s underground parking.

Those two measures would reduce borrowing to about $162.9 million for the Central Park North option.

The price tag for the Central Park South option is $215.9 million, but with $30 million from the debt reduction reserve and $17 million from the parking reserve, the borrowing cost is estimated at $168.9 million.

While it’s more expensive, council felt residents should have the choice of keeping the existing Crystal Pool open while a new facility is built.

“Given the enormous demand that we’ve received to consider at least the possibility of uninterrupted service (at Crystal Pool), I think it is only reasonable to include a second option on this referendum,” Caradonna said. “Given that North and South are relatively similar in cost, I think those are the two reasonable ones to put on there. And I think that voters will make the right decision.”

But there’s no guarantee the existing pool will remain open during a five-year construction schedule. City staff noted there’s a chance of catastrophic failure at Crystal Pool due to construction.

“The idea here is that we will do our best to keep it open, but if it’s not safe and it’s not feasible, we will close it,” Caradonna said.

If residents choose Central Park North as the site, the city will close the existing Crystal Pool when construction starts, saving as much as $10 million. Dryland recreation programs offered at Crystal Pool would move to Crystal Garden. That plan requires a $750,000 capital budget for building improvements at Crystal Garden.

As for aquatic services, the city intends to work with other municipalities to house programs and minimize the impact.

If voters choose Central Park South, Crystal Pool would remain open, if safe and feasible, and staff would install temporary park amenities, including basketball courts, in the neighbourhood during construction.

Alto noted if voters decide not to approve borrowing, council will face tough decisions. “I don’t believe that means no pool ever. I do think that means that we need to hear the reservations of our public and listen to what they tell us are their priorities at this time.”

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