Splashing Good Times

Various Locations in Tacoma, Wash.

By Sutton Stokes

The city of Tacoma, Wash., was having problems with its pools. A network of neighborhood parks had served residents for decades, but wading pools in the parks were causing headaches for Metro Parks Tacoma, the city department in charge of maintaining the facilities.

The 40-year-old pools had not aged well. Crumbling concrete led to frequent leaks, which wasted water, raised costs and made it difficult to maintain proper chemical levels.

Another problem was that the pools had been built before the enactment of modern health and safety guidelines. "We were constantly having to go back and retrofit something that either wasn't working or wasn't up to code," said Curtis Hancock, a Metro Parks Tacoma project manager.

As Metro Parks Tacoma officials considered possible solutions, they realized that even up-to-date, better-constructed pools would still have one major disadvantage: For safety reasons, access to any pool must be limited to the hours when a lifeguard is on duty. "We wanted something that could be open more hours and serve more people each day than a pool can," explained Hancock.

Instead of repairing or upgrading the pools, Metro Parks Tacoma decided to demolish them and install splashpads, or water-play areas with spray features and no standing water.

"We liked splashpads from a safety standpoint, a maintenance standpoint and a compliance standpoint," said Hancock. "But probably the single biggest factor was that splashpads could be open all day, every day. They're also easier to use, since parents don't have to get in the water or hold their children's hands to keep them safe."

With a budget of $1.9 million, the initial phase of the project focused on Jefferson Park, South Park and McKinley Playfield. As planning commenced, Metro Parks Tacoma officials had several main goals: They wanted the play features to have a long-lasting, vandalism-resistant finish; they wanted standardized components across all three locations; and they wanted to minimize environmental impact by using as little water as possible.

The city selected play features made by Vortex Aquatic Structures International, a Canadian company specializing in water-recreation products and technology. "We liked the fact that the Vortex play items have a polished, stainless-steel finish," said Hancock. "It's easy to clean, and it doesn't fade the way powder-finished or painted surfaces can."

Another selling point was the anchoring system, a modular footing universally compatible with all of the company's play features. Use of these footings allowed Tacoma to begin construction in December 2006, well before the play features were delivered in spring 2007. "We put up the play items just before we opened," said Hancock. "With the Safeswap anchors, you're talking about just a few minutes to install each item."

Easy set-up and take-down allows Tacoma to dismantle the play features and store them indoors during winter, protecting against both weather damage and vandalism. The city can also shuffle play features among the parks, providing novelty for users at no extra cost. And by installing extra footings at each site, Tacoma has the option of adding new play features later without additional construction work.

To minimize water usage, Tacoma installed recirculating water systems, which recapture water in 3,000-gallon tanks before sterilizing it with an ultraviolet disinfection system and sending it out through the play features again. Recirculating systems are an alternative to flow-through systems, which tap into city potable-water lines and drain into sewers, recapturing none of the water. "Flow-through systems are cheaper to build than recirculating systems, but recirculating systems are cheaper to operate," said Hancock, who expects that the lower operating costs of Tacoma's recirculating systems will pay for their higher installation costs within five years.

Demolition on the three pools commenced in December 2006, and the new splashpads opened in June 2007. The splashpads operate for about 12 hours every day from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and they are popular. "Public acceptance is very high, and the proof in the pudding is that attendance has gone up," said Hancock. "The splashpads have become a huge draw, not only within the neighborhoods but from across the city. So far, we are seeing about a four-fold attendance increase in each location, compared to the pools." And even though the splashpads don't take up any more room than the pools did—they range from 2,500 to 3,800 square feet—they are supporting these larger crowds with no trouble, according to Hancock.

Of course, Hancock was expecting to see crowds of children enjoying the streams of water and brightly colored play equipment. What surprises him, he said, is the effect the splashpads have had on the larger community.

"The walls around the splashpads have become a popular meeting place at all three parks, where people come to sit and talk," said Hancock. "One resident told me that the Jefferson Park splashpad brought his neighborhood back together. He said he was talking to neighbors he hadn't talked to in years."


Metro Parks Tacoma: www.tacomaparks.com

ORB Architects: www.orbarchitects.com

Vortex Aquatic Structures International: www.vortex-intl.com

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