Crazy Idea # 5: Save the Underwood!

Note: This is the fifth installment of Eight Crazy Ideas for ’08, a multi-part posting that is looking at ideas, big and small, that could improve our community in Belmont.

Our series on eight crazy ideas (that just might work) for 2008 continues today. As you know, B2’s previous suggestions have touched on the parking crisis in town, the environment and new sources of funding for a cash-strapped Belmont. With Crazy Idea #5, we’re addressing an issue that’s close to the heart of everyone in town: Saving the Underwood Pool! Of course, this doesn’t strike me as particularly crazy, nor do I think it will strike B2’s readers that way, either. After all, anyone who has visited the Underwood on a sweltering afternoon in July or August recognizes that the pool — which opened in 1912 and is believed to be the first, public outdoor swimming pool in the U.S. — is a beloved and much-used town resource. Even though I didn’t grow up in Belmont, my aunt lived here and I can remember my grandmother splashing around the Underwood on hot summer days back in the 1970s. More recently, the Underwood — with its sloping lawn — served as inspiration for parts of Tom Perotta’s book (and Hollywood movie) Little Children.

Underwood Pool

But, as anyone who has visited the Underwood recently knows, the differences between Hollywood’s rendering of the Underwood and the reality on Concord Ave. are vast. The cinder block bath house dates from the 1930s and is far past its prime. Anyone who has had to take their kids to use the facilities at Underwood exits the facility seriously considering using the shrubs the next time.

The pool, itself, is also in need of a do-over. The boggy location and age of the pool mean that the lining is difficult to maintain and frequently flakes off, leaving floating bits of concrete to annoy swimmers. The concrete dividing wall and oval shape make it useless as a lap pool, and the area surrounding the pool could be re-done to give families more room to stretch out and enjoy the sun. (Heck — some chairs and tables would be nice, maybe even a lunch stand).

The warnings about the Underwood have been loud and clear for those who are listening. As recently as last Spring, the town’s Rec Department was warning that the pool was in such a poor state of repair that a “catastrophic loss” — meaning, an un-fixable problem (or did they mean something more dire?) was likely during the Summer of 2007. The prospect for Summer 2008 is not any better.

The deteriorating Underwood is a disaster waiting to happen and indications are that if the worst does happen — a major failure that demands expensive repairs by the town — the money will not be there and the Underwood will stay shuttered for good. That would be a huge loss for the town. Let’s face it — the Underwood is a place where neighbors from different parts of Belmont rub elbows and get to know each other. It’s one of the things that make Belmont…Belmont. Without a viable Underwood, families (those that can afford to, anyway) will buy expensive season memberships at the Waltham Y, or Boston Sports Club in Lexington or Watertown, taking them out of Belmont and providing less opportunity for interaction and robbing the town of revenue, to boot. Those that can’t afford the private club memberships? Well, they’ll just have to sweat it out —  literally — or go to MDC pools in places like Watertown or Boston.

Alas, despite the warnings, we’ve acted like a deer staring into the headlights over the years as the Underwood has continued to deteriorate. To save the facility now, the town will need to act decisively on a number of fronts – and this will need to be a grass roots effort, especially given the other demands on the town’s finances. One big step forward (and one that won’t cost anything) is to clarify which organization is responsible for the Underwood’s maintenance and future development. The Recreation Department runs the facility and collects revenue for memberships and day passes. While those rates are beyond reasonable for Belmont families, it’s clear that other sources of funding are needed for the facility, and a sure hand to guide its future development (we could say the same for the skating rink). Is the Rec Department the best organization to handle such a project? Probably not. The town needs to create a task force to spearhead redevelopment of the site, or at least make it clear to the Parks and Recreation Department that it is no longer satisfactory to just collect membership fees and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.

On the funding side, Belmont citizens need to mount a grass roots fundraising effort, and begin looking for possible sources of public funding. The fact that the Underwood is the first public outdoor pool in the country may qualify us for grant money to help rebuild and restore it. Belmont residents should also pitch in to create a fund for a rehab that would be worthy of our town. My sense is that people would be more than willing to if there was something to shoot for (i.e. a vision of the “New Underwood”) and a place to write the checks to. After all — even a $1,000 contribution to the Rebuild Underwood fund would be a good deal, if you factor in the cost of 10 or 12 season memberships at Boston Sports Club or the Y. Whatever the case, saving the Underwood is a crazy idea that not only might work for 2008 — it HAS to work!