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O'Neil Aquatic Center Designs Shared in Public Sessions

City of Bloomington
The images show lazy river designs similar to one planned for a new aquatic center at O'Neil Park. Nearly 100 people attended virtual information sessions about the project that includes a new skate park on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021

Nearly 100 people took up the city's offer to ask questions about early designs for Bloomington’s new pool and skateboard area planned for O’Neil Park.

Set to open in May 2022, the aquatic center at the corner of Chestnut Street and White Oak Road, would replace the west side’s 45-year-old pool that was razed last fall. Under the current plan, O’Neil would become the only public water park in the Twin Cities to feature a lazy river. 

On Thursday evening, Bloomington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Department staff joined Andrew Caputo, a project manager with Williams Architects, in leading two virtual presentations. 

Missed them? The program will be on the parks department website, starting Friday, according to Thom Rakestraw, parks and rec marketing manager. He said 89 people registered for the Thursday events.

Itasca-based Williams, which specializes in aquatic centers, is overseeing the O’Neil Park redesign. Caputo said the proposed timeline puts designs finalized by June, with bids this summer and construction in fall 2021 and spring 2022.  Williams' design team includes Naperville-based Hitchcock Design Group for landscaping; St. Louis-based Counsilman-Hunsaker, for aquatics; and Idaho-based engineers, Erickson Civil.

“We’ve been able to hire the best team in the Midwest, if not the country,” for these types of projects, said parks and rec director Jay Tetzloff. 

Caputo showed photos of similar aquatic project features, as well as detailed drawings of the estimated $10-million O’Neil plan. 

“The funding we have right now is for the pool area, additional parking, and the skate park,” Tetzloff told virtual attendees. But the overall design presented Thursday also included “wish list” items to be tackled in future years. 

The new water center will be constructed in the same southwest corner as the previous pool. But it’ll have a larger footprint. Designs show a 3.5-f00t deep, 8-foot-wide, lazy river to be connected with a main activity pool that includes a zero-depth entrance and a middle island. Throughout the aqua center, various accessibility features, as well as play areas are expected, said Caputo.

The presenters fielded about two dozen questions after the presentations. Topics of interest ranged from cost of season-passes, to operating hours to program offerings. Other commenters wondered about parking, accessibility, and when basketball courts -- to be razed for this project -- will be rebuilt.

Tetzloff said although it's too early to know what admission prices will be, he does expect an increase to Bloomington's $29 season pass, which in 2019 allowed access to both O'Neil and Holiday pools. (The COVID pandemic restrictions kept pools closed in 2020.) Tetzloff noted even without the improved facilities, factors such as a higher minimum wage and other rising operating costs, would make that a necessity.

The city plans to offer low-income scholarships to pools, he said, and hopes to raise funds so that residents who have higher incomes can help out those less fortunate.

The pool will be able to accomodate a 3-meter diving board. (One of the perennial favorites of the old O’Neil Pool was its high-dive). However, initially only a 1-meter diving board will be installed.

The center also will have a plunge pool for water slides, and a separate lap pool. A bathhouse with restrooms and lockers, and a concession stand also are planned, as is a nearby spray park.  

Visitors to the park would be allowed to buy concessions, regardless if attending the pool.

The spray park would be included with pool admission. However, it would have extended seasons and be free during those times, Tetzloff said.

Also included in this first phase is a redesign of O’Neil’s skate park. The Chestnut Street parking lot will grow by 33%, and include handicap-accessible spaces, said Caputo. Also, included is a walking path connecting the Chestnut lot to the one further north, with White Oak Road access.

The skate park will get a modern update, and have various metal ramps, bridges and parapets, he said.

“It has a lot of action and opportunities for users of different skill levels,” said Caputo.

Future plans

Designs shown during the virtual session Thursday also displayed long-term plans.

Down the road, a paved walking trail, a dog park, batting cages, and various courts for basketball, pickleball and tennis are being considered. O’Neil’s future also might include a nature-based playground, new picnic shelters, and a rain garden. The last item is helpful in handling storm water, Caputo explained. 

The park’s current basketball courts will be razed to make way for the first phase projects. That drew a question in both sessions, with attendees wondering when the courts will be rebuilt. Tetzloff said no timeline is in place for that yet. 

He said results from an online survey, which drew about 1,000 participants, found the top priority after this construction project is creating paved walking paths around O’Neil Park. 

Tetzloff said three of every four survey respondents call Bloomington home. That’s important because even though O’Neil is a community-wide amenity, staff wants to hear in particular from Bloomington residents, he said. City staff also hand delivered paper surveys to 100 residents in the neighborhood.

Online survey respondents provided more than 500 comments about O’Neil plans, said Tetzloff. Favorites for the aquatic center included the lazy river and water slides, he said. 

Tetzloff said there’s still time for the public to share its priorities for O’Neil Park, but the window is shrinking:

“To hit the Memorial Day 2022 opening, we’ve got to roll. We’ve really got to roll,” he said, adding at some point soon, planners will need to take the input and move forward.

Besides encouraging residents to view Thursday’s virtual sessions at the parks and rec website, Tetzloff also said emailed comments are welcome at parks@cityblm.org.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.