Uncertainty surrounds future of Robert A. Lee Recreation Center

As the future of the Robert A. Lee Pool is undetermined, Iowa City Parks and Recreation staff are weighing public input.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

The pool at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center is seen in Iowa City on June 29, 2022.

Emily Delgado, News Reporter

In 2014, the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center celebrated 100 years of being part of the Iowa City community. Now, eight years after its 100th anniversary, the existence of the pool is at stake.

Iowa City Parks and Recreation, with the assistance of BerryDunn, a consulting firm, has formed the Iowa City Gather Here Recreation Master Plan, an initiative to update facilities around the city.

One of the plan’s projects is to either repair the building or remove it completely, as it has extensive damage.

Upon deciding if removing the recreation center would be a good choice for the community, the history of the pool has been reviewed.

The entire Robert A. Lee Recreation Center was built on what used to be the Civil Defense Network of Nuclear Fallout Shelters, a space designed to keep occupants safe in the case of nuclear explosions.

In 2017, during a restroom renovation, staff ran into concrete reinforcements along the lower level of the center.

“The building’s lower level itself has reinforced concrete throughout the hallways and all around the core locker room area,” Iowa City Parks and Recreation director Juli Seydell Johnson said. “We’ve confirmed that with our restroom renovations in the last six years that we’ve run into concrete that had a lot of reinforcement, much thicker than anyone expected and likely because of this use as part of the Civil Defense Program.”

At an Iowa City City Council work session on June 21, Seydell Johnson presented an update on the project where numerous Robert A. Lee Recreation Center visitors spoke to the council in support of keeping the pool.

Seydell Johnson said two groups have been a part of giving public input: Robert A. Lee pool swimmers and other community members, both being weighed by the Iowa City City Council for approval.

Iowa City Parks and Recreation Staff, along with BerryDunn, requested that upon the removal of the pool the city invest in the Mercer Aquatic Center. The tentative removal of the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center won’t be an immediate project. Seydell Johnson predicts it will happen in the next five years.

Keeping the pool would require repairs, causing the city to invest, around $5 million, Seydell Johnson said.

“It’s kind of a less than ideal situation to invest four or five million dollars to keep it operating as it is,” Seydell Johnson said.

Another factor in deciding if keeping the recreation center is beneficial to the Iowa City community is the frequency of visitors to the pool. Seydell Johnson said it is unusual to see more than two lap swimmers in the pool.

At an Iowa City City Council Meeting on June 21, Amy Kretkrowski, a University of Iowa College of Law faculty member, said she is a regular lap swimmer at the recreation center,

“I can tell you from the times I go, there is way more than two people in the lap lane,” Kretkrowski said.

Seydell Johnson said the recommendation to remove the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center is not based on wanting to negatively impact the users but rather determine if the cost is worth keeping the pool.

“The Robert A. Lee pool is the best for senior citizens, it’s not too long or too short…it’s well utilized and well kept…I hope you will maintain it. It’s worth spending the money, effort, and time to keep it,” Ramon Lim, a retired professor of the UI College of Medicine said at the June 21 City Council meeting.

The team behind the Gather Here Recreation Master Plan asked for public input to best decide what to do next. Much of the public input has been to keep the pool as it is a part of the greater Iowa City Downtown District, something Seydell Johnson recognizes.

Parks and Recreation staff were accepting feedback from the public up until June 4 and will use said feedback on deciding on a project timeline for the entire Gather Here Recreation Master Plan.

“We just think that there may be other uses that benefit many more people in our population that we should be considering at this point,” Seydell Johnson said.

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