Heather Farm Park aquatic, community center plan approved

WALNUT CREEK — A $77 million vision to revamp the aging but bustling pools and community center at Heather Farm Park has finally come into focus.

And if all goes according to plan, there will still be enough room for tens of thousands of swimmers — of all ages and abilities — to enjoy the water for instruction, recreation and competition in Walnut Creek.

When initial designs were unveiled in early March, scores of swimmers and community members voiced concerns about their ability to continue holding training and public events at Heather Farm Park.

However, the new proposal seemed to meet with approval from all sides. Mayor Loella Haskew applauded all of the last-minute work that assuaged the community’s frustrations, despite growing fears that so many personal stakes would never allow for compromise.

“Sometimes — under pressure — better things happen than if the pressure hadn’t been applied,” Haskew said Tuesday night at the meeting where the city council approved the plan. “This creativity, I think, will inevitably pay great dividends to our community.”

The new schematics meet the standards set by World Aquatics — the agency that oversees international competitions in water sports — for both depth and artistic swimming fields of play, according to a third-party report conducted by aquatics consultants with Counsilman-Hunsaker.

The renovations to two pools at the Clarke Memorial Swim Center will make them slightly wider, deeper and longer than initially planned. Combined with increased space for landscaped land and the pool deck, city staff said this simplified design can more easily embrace a range of activities — upholding the center’s legacy as a hub for aquatic organizations that have produced dozens of national champions and Olympians, notably in synchronized swimming.

Specifically, all lanes in the 50-meter pool will now be 8 feet wide and sloping from 3.5 feet to 13 feet deep. This configuration allows for either nine long-course or 18 short-course lanes to be set up.

Staff also expanded the perimeter and depth of the recreation pool, which will simultaneously accommodate eight 25-meter lanes and hit 8-feet at its deepest end, but also maintain family-friendly features such as a beach entry, slide and current channel.

City staff said each of these shifts will allow the facility to offer 26 total lanes for swimming, which will make it easier to host the annual Walnut Creek Masters’ adult “short course” meet, and the Aquabears’ ongoing youth competitions. Additionally, the larger volume of water will better support the Aquanuts synchronized swimming team as they throw their “flyer” partners in the air without worrying they’ll crash into other lanes or even the pool deck.

The plan also relocated changing rooms closer to the water, and planners have saved $150,000 by rejecting the need for an optional floating “bulkhead” barrier, which would have divided the pool space.

Renovations at the Clarke Swim Center will develop 18 lanes in a 50-meter pool and 8 lanes in a recreation pool at Heather Farm Park. (City of Walnut Creek) 

The Walnut Creek City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved these final plans — chosen from a “menu of options” drawn up by city planners and architects at the eleventh hour of a project that started making headway in 2019.

Kevin Safine, director of Walnut Creek’s arts and recreation department, metaphorically patted his team’s back for wrapping up a project that is the culmination of 15 years of planning to achieve a multi-generational, multi-activity hub for the entire community.

“When we last left off, this topic of discussion was filled with a lot of detail, a lot of comments, a lot of puns, but also good work and good feedback,” Safine said Tuesday. “The need for balanced programming drives us in what we do … Nobody’s needs will be met completely in any of these designs, including the city’s, but it will meet a lot of their needs.”

Safine said his team did not hear about any feedback from any of the three major swim teams that the new design created negative consequences or impacts. He also confirmed that while the city has not specifically set out to support groups’ revenue-generating events at the new pools, he said the new design changes may still help make sure it would be easier to do so.

No last-minute complaints bubbled up during Tuesday’s meeting — a stark contrast to the dozens of speakers who voiced concerns about the schematic designs last month.

Mike Heaney, president of the Walnut Creek Aquatic Foundation, which pledged to raise $3 million to help cover costs for these renovations, was the only community member who spoke. He reiterated his team’s support for this redevelopment, thanking “everybody who’s been involved in this process for so long for all their time, energy and concern for your communities.”

Councilmember Matt Francois was pleased to see the contrast between Tuesday’s meeting and the debate six weeks prior.

“I think this shows that when we listen to one another, roll up our sleeves, sit down and try to work on solutions,” Francois said, “it’s pretty amazing what we can accomplish.”

While debates about the pools had previously been the most contentious, the Walnut Creek City Council also voted to install LEED silver-equivalent sustainable features — designed with the intention of upgrading additional green infrastructure like solar panels and storage batteries further down the line — and renovating the community center building to support a fully functional emergency operations center, capable of withstanding seismic events or other disasters.

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