The Do’s and Don’ts of Planning Aquatic Centers

Every project is different. But experience shows that following a few guidelines can help develop the right pool on the right site to meet the community’s needs.

When it comes to planning aquatic centers, the swimming pool is just the beginning. Designing these facilities requires careful consideration of myriad economic, environmental, logistical and jurisdictional factors. When the different elements get boiled down and contextual details emerge, they will determine not only the size of the facility and the programming options but also the long-term success of the facility.

Communities are at the heart of every aquatic center, and each one is different. On recent projects, LPA’s Sport + Recreation team addressed a wide variety of issues and challenges. In Alamo Heights, Texas, the local school district was laser-focused on creating a first-class facility for competitive swimming and other aquatic programs such as water polo and diving. In Rancho Cordova, California, the city’s Recreation & Park District had prioritized a replacement for the aging community pool that could cater to both recreational and competitive needs. In Yuba City, California, city leaders wanted a multiuse aquatic center that would be a cornerstone of their larger effort to redevelop a 10-acre community park.

Joint-use partnerships mean a greater diversity of voices, and experts have a say in how things operate and how to make improvements.

The same issues tend to emerge on project after project. Even experienced administrators can fall into traps, as they immerse themselves in the details of the planning process.

“You learn important lessons on every project,” says LPA Director of Sport + Recreation Arash Izadi. “If you don’t ground the design process in a solid foundation and develop the design around set principles, it’s easy to miss opportunities.”

Whatever the conditions, budget or priorities, the process can grow complicated and emotional on the part of both the owners and community members who will use the facility. Misguided decisions can cost a project for decades.

To best navigate this process, here are some universal
 “Do’s and Don’ts” for planning aquatic centers.

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As part of a shared-use agreement, Alamo Heights Independent School District agreed to provide more time for recreational public use at the school district’s natatorium.


Start with the obvious questions: Who owns it, and who gets to use it?

Knowing who owns and operates the facility will help clarify how costs are defined and how use is allocated. Legal boundaries must be established to keep operations running smoothly. Typically, the choice is to go solo or seek out a partner. If a partnership is the right answer, the options are a joint-use agreement or a simple shared-use agreement. Joint use typically, but not always, brings some level of financial consideration. Shared use is often a simple agreement to access or collaborated use.

Joint-use agreements often allow for some level of cost-sharing that can also define the scope of activities that will be available. They set clear boundaries — in writing — for all stakeholders to follow.

Shared-use agreements “are little more than a handshake where two or more parties agree to some level of use,” Izadi says. “They’re typically set up as an MOU [memorandum of understanding], so trust is important.”

The type of agreement — joint use or shared use — can inform whether a more comprehensive policy covering all users or one more limited in scope (covering just the owner, leaving participating parties to protect themselves from liability) is appropriate.

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The city of Rancho Cordova and park officials worked together to procure additional funds to expand programs at the site.


Don’t ignore community input.

At the outset of the planning process, it can be difficult to fully grasp the big picture, including community priorities, programming needs and projected development and operational costs. But making hasty decisions would be a disservice to the community. These kinds of data can only be obtained by engaging with community members firsthand.

When Rancho Cordova park district officials approached LPA to design the replacement for the Cordova Community Pool, they came prepared with a set of budgetary terms and projected usage numbers. But after a customized community outreach effort, including charrettes, town halls and site-awareness tours, constituent feedback revealed a set of program needs far more robust that what the district had originally planned.

“The district heeded this feedback and ended up procuring more funds through a collaboration with the city,” Justin Caron, CEO of Aquatic Design Group, said during a joint presentation with LPA at the recent Texas Recreation and Park Society conference. That collaboration allowed the district to expand the program to include a separate recreation pool with a beach entry and play structure, as well as more space for equipment storage. The replacement of a community facility can be a sensitive issue for residents. The Cordova agreement “was done the right way, as a continuation of that outreach effort,” Caron said.

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LPA’s Arash Izadi meets with Rancho Cordova residents at one of several meetings to discuss the replacement community pool.


Remember the adage: Location, Location, Location!

A swimming pool isn’t just a swimming pool. Multiple factors are on the table when it comes to designing an aquatic center, particularly a multiuse facility that will cater to diverse stakeholders. The factors include siting, solar orientation, climate and wind conditions, parking opportunities, access points, flex areas, storage and maintenance.

The location on the site will inform a facility’s size and what kind of programs are feasible. And the programming will also affect the location. If a school district, for example, has a stake in an aquatic center to accommodate its competitive programs, as was the case with Alamo Heights, then the district’s athletic director is obliged to crunch the numbers by asking questions like: How many swimmers are on the swim team? What other competitive programs will need the facility and on which days and times? How do we balance competitive programs with physical education needs within the pool? What expectations do community members have in terms of using the facility for lap swimming, private lessons, water aerobics and other recreational needs?

The answers to these and similar questions will go a long way toward deciding what scale of facility — modest or multifaceted — is appropriate for a given community. That in turn will dictate where that facility can be built.


Don’t get (too) caught up in the numbers.

A facility owner who becomes preoccupied with budget constraints or square footage can easily miss the forest for the trees. In the end, the most important factor is the program. This was certainly the case in Alamo Heights.

As the aquatic development’s funder, the Alamo Heights Independent School District could dictate the terms of usage around its competitive swimming and diving teams based on shared-use considerations. But the community had its own expectations, including the amount of time allowed for recreational lap swimmers and other groups.

“Rather than crunching data until we were blue in the face, we took a good look at the district’s program, and we listened to what the community wanted and needed,” Caron says. What resulted is a unique 39-meter-by-25-yard pool with a movable bulkhead to allow for demarcation of the pool’s shallow and deep areas. This enables many types of programs to function simultaneously in the natatorium. The resulting ability to accommodate multiple activities made the “numbers” work.

“Alamo Heights is pretty much booked every minute of every day,” Izadi says. “It’s proven to be a tremendously successful program.”

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The Alamo Heights natatorium can accommodate multiple activities simultaneously.


Create a “sinking fund.”

Despite its relatively crude name, a “sinking fund” is one of the best insurance policies available for an aquatic center. Established by an economic entity, the fund sets aside a percentage of revenue over a predetermined period to fund future capital expenses.

Given their nature and high usage, aquatic centers require regular upkeep. Basic repairs are just the start. Over time, more substantial maintenance and operational needs like code upgrades and the replacement of decks, diving boards and filtration systems will inevitably require financial attention.


Don’t go it alone.

Forging partnerships can have obvious benefits, especially in projects developed through joint-use agreements. The parties share costs and bring expertise to design, programming and operations. Co-investors and other third parties often help produce a facility with broader appeal. “Partnerships can fill the void of what’s not there, helping to serve specific needs and expand the diversity of programming,” Izadi says.

In Yuba City, the program needs for the Gauche Aquatic Park demanded a broad range of expertise. An integral part of the city’s downtown revitalization plan, the aquatic center was equipped with a 10-lane competitive pool, a recreational and diving pool, a training pool for swim lessons, a zero-depth entry activity pool and play area for children, a slide and receiving pool and several other amenities all meant to attract a wide variety of users.

“Joint-use partnerships mean a greater diversity of voices and experts have a say in how things operate and how to make improvements,” Izadi says.

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Yuba City’s Gauche Aquatic Park incorporated multiple elements, including a children’s play area, to attract a wide variety of users.


Confirm start and end dates for any agreement.

No matter which type of agreement is in place, operators should always err on the side of caution. Handshake deals and MOUs can easily dissolve, and circumstances change. Swim teams get bigger or smaller. New community programs emerge.

In anticipation of those outcomes — when stakeholder groups wish to renegotiate terms or when a new party expresses an interest in entering into an agreement — securing clear start and end dates (“commencement” and “severability”) is always advisable.

At every step of the process, the emphasis needs to be on communication and flexibility. The development process for such an important community project will never go exactly as expected. But an inclusive, informed planning approach and a solid foundation will always lead to better outcomes.

Whatever the type of project, a comprehensive development approach is essential. To make it work, it’s imperative to listen to your community, consider the big picture and seek out partners. Focusing on the fundamentals will help ensure that a project meets stakeholders’ goals and remains relevant to the community for years to come.