Keep Robert A. Lee Pool Open

The pool at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City, Iowa on Friday, June 24, 2022. The City of Iowa City is considering a plan that would see the downtown recreation center pool closed and expanded other aquatic facilities. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Dear members of the Iowa Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council.

We write to express our concern that the proposed closing of the Robert A. Lee (RAL) Pool will leave Iowa citizens, regardless of age, physical ability, mode of transportation, socio- economic or health/wellness needs, without access and reasonable opportunity for aquatic activities. Having served our community in a versatile and beneficial way for 58 years, the RAL pool is at the heart of – and essential for – our community. In fact, BerryDunn’s surveys show that a majority of respondents (70%) ranked RAL as the best recreational facility in town, and 56% listed water activities as the most important recreational activity. Why close the RAL pool and reduce opportunities? We highly recommend the RAL renovation and oppose adding a hot water pool to Mercer which would provide less aquatic opportunities at more than double the cost.

Why pay more for less?

In an email May 23, Julie S. Johnson said the funds “to repair and upgrade the Robert A. Lee Pool…would be better spent in a new addition to Mercer,” but the estimate provided by BerryDunn suggests otherwise. The Recreation Master Plan estimates that renovations to RAL’s pool and locker rooms would cost between $4.5 million and $5.04 million. Renovations at the Mercer Aquatic Center – which include, but are not limited to, the addition of a hot water pool to “replace” the RAL pool – are estimated between $8.14 million and $9.05 million of dollars. No estimate is provided for the demolition and repurposing of RAL pool space, surely a significant amount. The email also states that the RAL pool “will remain in operation until the new pool is open, unless an expensive repair forces closure sooner.” With approximately half of the funds available to renovate the RAL Pool within the current repair budget, we find this decision unacceptable, a breach of duty to maintain public facilities and a potential excuse to close the RAL Pool without public input. .

Additionally, in their presentations to the Commission and at the RAL Open Day, BerryDunn said “…the [RAL] the pool is built over a bomb shelter,” which they suggested could lead to additional costs if renovations are attempted. It is simply wrong. Original architect Roland Wehner and plans held at the State Historical Society confirm that neither the RAL Pool nor any other part of the RAL structure is in fact built over a bomb shelter. It seems that BerryDunn’s recommendation was made with erroneous data and calls into question the information presented by the firm.

In addition to costing more, the proposed plan and RAL’s closure would affect all water users in Iowa City by limiting opportunities and leading to potential overcrowding at Mercer. BerryDunn’s brief verbal descriptions and illustration of the proposed hot water pool, with no actual physical specifications, suggest that this addition would provide inadequate space for the multipurpose activities currently available at RAL. The illustration “Mercer Park Pool Renovation & Addition” appears to depict a shallow pool approximately three lanes wide, none of which could be used for lap swimming or deep water aquatic activities if not there is no entry. Users of the RAL Pool do so for a variety of reasons, and destroying the facility would disadvantage a large swath of the Iowa City community, from toddlers to seniors. Traditional swimming pools consisting primarily of lap lanes, such as RALs, are the most versatile design to accommodate all users of aquatic facilities. The proposed recreation master plan will reduce the total number of lanes from 30 to 19 and eliminate the paddling pool and deep water area at RAL.

Currently, the RAL pool simultaneously accommodates the following hot water services (83-85 degrees) in the various depths of the RAL pool:

•Aquacise and aquatic walking.

• Physiotherapy and aquatic rehabilitation.

•Aquacises in deep water.

• Lap swimming (six lanes).

• Swimming lessons.

•Activities for toddlers in the shallow pool.

• Swimming lessons, diving lessons and climbing wall in the big pool.

Simply put, RAL’s pool already provides what people want and actively use.

Closing the RAL pool would also limit access to swimming lessons, lap swimming, and other water activities during high school swim meets and when maintenance closes the Mercer pool. Similarly, increased traffic and traffic congestion around South East Junior High School during the school year and when outdoor facilities at Mercer Park are in use during the summer months limits access to the Mercer pool. A much more equitable and environmentally friendly solution would be to make the necessary repairs to the RAL pool.

Equity: central location of RAL

The RAL Recreation Center is in the heart of the Iowa City community, the site chosen by Mr. Robert A. Lee because of its central location, after a former community center burned down. The building is accessible to all ages and compatible with the city’s goal of providing downtown housing and services that promote a walkable urban community where non-students want to live. The City of Iowa City invests in downtown Iowa City (Summer of the Arts, ICPL, Senior Center) and provides incentives for developers to build downtown housing that includes public benefits (Bread Garden, Riverside Theatre, FilmScene). In short, the RAL pool deserves the same investment to further enhance family and fitness offerings in downtown Iowa City.

Plus, transportation and parking at RAL are easily accessible and environmentally friendly. Downtown does not require a bus transfer for passengers, unlike Mercer’s location, and the RAL Pool site serves Iowa citizens from the north, south, east and east. ‘west. Another advantage of RAL is the easily accessible municipal parking adjacent to the facility. Sixty to ninety minute free parking could easily be incorporated into Parks and Recreation programming (i.e. as part of the swim pass) just as the City provides free parking one hour to downtown ramps.

Finally, RAL’s centralized and intimate pool of facilities provides the opportunity for new friendships, networks with diverse people, long-term relationships, and intergenerational bonds that are hard to find elsewhere. Less quantifiable than easily quoted data, this elusive quality seems less obvious to the Mercer pool, to many users, and another reason for the passionate response to the proposed closure of the RAL pool.


Keeping the downtown RAL pool is the cheapest, fairest, and most sustainable option for users of all Iowa City aquatic facilities. The Parks and Recreation Master Plan states that “[p]The Ministry’s willingness to listen and respond to the needs of the community was essential to the project,” but we fear that was not the case. Despite the inconvenient and limited RAL pool hours imposed by administrators this spring (weekdays 6:15 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.), users remained committed to the installation. Iowa City already has what the community needs in an indoor hot water pool at RAL. Please preserve, repair and renovate this fine facility.

Authors Jill Fishbaugh, Justin Fishbaugh, Anne Stapleton, Sue Mellecker, Mark Cannon, and Carin Crain live in Iowa City. The column is signed by more than 160 local residents.

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