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Dirty Pool 

As the Bayview waits for a rebuilt MLK pool, the project, a stated mayoral priority, keeps gobbling money and time--making it the prototypical city contracting fiasco.

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
As the chill of summer descended upon San Francisco, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works swore that the new Martin Luther King pool would open on July 22, in time for the children of Bayview-Hunters Point to enjoy indoor swimming before going back to school. It came as no surprise to many people in the community when the big day dawned as just another pool-less day, in a pool-less year, in what has shaped up to be a pool-less 21st century on Third Street.

As it now stands, the new MLK pool, originally estimated to take one year to complete, is about one year behind schedule. It's way over budget, too -- about $1.5 million over -- and laced with needlessly expensive items, among them exorbitantly expensive brass plumbing fixtures (much cheaper plastic fixtures are preferred for many reasons) and sophisticated computer scheduling software for the project that has never met a schedule it didn't want to violate.

But the MLK pool is noteworthy for reasons beyond wasted time and money. The project's significance involves the manifold ways it has gone wrong despite its status as a top priority of Mayor Willie Brown.

Brown made construction of the MLK pool a focus after he assumed office in 1996, loudly promising to quickly deliver a major public works plum to the area, which has very few recreational facilities. The pool, after all, was meant to serve a largely African-American neighborhood that has long supported Brown. "This pool has been one of the great features of our city," Brown said in 1998, at a ceremony kicking off the reconstruction of the pool, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. "That this pool was allowed to go into total disrepair is a great tragedy for the city."

The mayor's interest notwithstanding, the pool project has become, in the world of local government, a legendary fiasco.

The MLK pool was in trouble from the start. The city's Public Works Department awarded the job to a contractor who was running a year late on another city project. City officials allowed the contractor to give a subcontract to a company owned by his wife, in what appears to be a violation of the city's affirmative action contracting rules. The wife, in turn, paid a larger firm to do the actual work, apparently violating another set of regulations. The cost of concrete ballooned by hundreds of thousands of dollars before the concrete subcontractor, who just happened to be working out of the offices of a politically connected business consultant from the Bayview, disappeared. Serious questions have been raised about the quality (and safety) of the work. The city architect on the job has quit. City officials blame the prime contractor on the project for the cost overruns and delay, but have declined to fire him. The contractor, in turn, blames his subcontractors. Neighborhood activists blame the mayor. In a strange twist, the mayor apparently authorized the hiring of a dentist with little apparent public relations expertise -- at a cost of $100,000 -- to polish the image of the pool project.

Putting a public relations shine on a boondoggle is not as odd a response as one might think in the world of San Francisco contracting. In that world, even a mayor's top-priority, fast-track projects must struggle against, and often lose out to, a long-standing culture of incompetence, wastefulness, apparent impropriety, and utter unaccountability.

Tragic events are woven into the history of the King pool.

In 1968, producers of the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt -- remember the famous car chase through the hills of San Francisco? -- donated money to build a community swimming pool on Third Street, in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. It was named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had just been assassinated.

In 1974, two boys drowned in an after-hours swim at the pool. Actor/philanthropist Raymond Burr -- whose television series Ironside was made in San Francisco -- responded by giving money to the Department of Recreation and Park to enclose the pool.

As the years wore on, though, the city neglected to maintain the facility. Mold, algae, and rust blossomed in the showers and locker rooms. In 1996, the roof fell in, and the pool closed. Willie Brown hired Harry L. Overstreet, of Gerson/Overstreet architects, to study the feasibility of repairing the pool. Overstreet decided that it should be torn down and replaced. During a campaign to convince the voters to build a stadium-mall for the 49ers football team, Mayor Brown promised to spend $8.2 million on a new pool. Brown assigned the design contract to Overstreet after declaring the pool situation an "emergency," a move that suspended a requirement that architectural firms compete for the design job.

A neighborhood committee, composed mostly of elderly women, was formed to advise the city. The committee insisted that the pool be of Olympic size, so it could support both swimming competitions and recreational use. Hopes were high that the pool would open in the summer of 1998.

The work proceeded at turtle-pace as the architect missed one deadline after another, but finally, in May 1999, the city Department of Public Works, which is building the pool for the Recreation and Park Department, awarded a multimillion-dollar construction contract to Chiang C.M. Construction Inc., operated by Robert Chiang. The completion date was set for Aug. 22, 2000. As that proposed completion date -- and many more -- slipped by, the project's budget rose to $9.7 million.

Barbra Viltz is a spokesperson for the neighborhood's pool advisory committee and is mad as hell about the delay. "Myself and the other little old ladies got this pool off the ground," the 64-year-old Viltz recalls. "We marched in front of the mayor's office in 1996. My daughter laughed. She said, "You old bats should sit down before you fall down; there will never be a pool, and if there is, the water will leak out.'

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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