Pools, Ponds And Patience

Summer'S Here, And Three Albuquerque Watering Holes Are Finally Opening

Christie Chisholm
7 min read
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There's nothing quite as satisfying on a hot summer day as walking, sunscreen in hand, to your local watering hole—be it to take a dip in the Rio Grande, to discover a new fishing spot or simply to wash the heat away in your neighborhood pool.

Monica Martinez knows the feeling. After living in her south Downtown home for 10 years, she's grown accustomed to the comfortable satisfaction of knowing that her favorite (and only) neighborhood pool is but five walkable blocks away. She recalls warm afternoons when she and her two daughters, 3 and 6, would trot down to the Rio Grande pool, along with a picnic basket, where they would splash and soak the day away.

Unfortunately, it's been a while since Martinez has taken her daughters to the pool, and it's not for lack of trying. That's because Rio Grande Pool, which was the first swimming pool ever built in Albuquerque and might still be the most stylish, has been closed for renovation for two straight years. But, at last, after stagnating for longer than the city would like to admit, it looks like the Rio Grande Pool, along with the similarly renovated Highland Pool, will finally be opening again in late May. At least, that's what the city says.

A Long Time Coming

The Rio Grande Pool has a long and rich history. Built back in the '50s, its cottonwood-rimmed banks have played host to many fond summer memories. And, it's survived fairly well over the years. Even as its neighboring country club pool, built a decade or two later, began to steal its more elite members away, hundreds of area residents continued to flock to it. But, over time, despite its sustained high usage, the city began to ignore the pool, said Rep. Miguel Garcia, who procured more than $200,000 from the Legislature to help fund the renovation back in 2000. Garcia said he believes that for many years the city ignored the pool for racial reasons, and because the pool sat in a lower-income area that serves the Barelas neighborhood.

Which is exactly why, according to Robert Vigil, vice president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, it was so important to fix the pool quickly and reopen it. “In a community like ours, we need that [pool]. A lot of our kids live in poverty, and it's hard for them to get out of the community as it is. Myself, growing up in this community, that pool was a life saver. I had some great summers there—and there's no reason why the rest of our kids can't have that.”

The Rio Grande Pool closed in 2002 because the original pipes, pumps and filtration system finally got so old that the city was forced to shut down the pool for days at a time to repair it, said Garcia. The money that Garcia obtained, as well as some general obligation bond money, went toward renovating the bathhouse, which was completed in 2003.

But the project halted after that and languished until last summer, when Vigil, Garcia and City Councilor Eric Griego learned that the pool had been put aside once again. Upon learning that Rio Grande Pool would be closed through last summer, despite the fact that it had already been closed for a year, the three rallied together and met with Blanca B. Hise, the former director of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department, and Alfredo Santistevan, director of the city Environmental Health Department, at the pool last May to discuss the matter and get things moving.

And things did get moving. By July the rest of the money needed for the project was found and the remainder of the renovation started that same month. Now, with a total of $1.4 million that went towards renovation, the pool will finally be opening in late May, complete with new artificial turf and a volleyball court, said Mike Molina, city recreation division manager.

Highland Pool, which was also closed last summer for a $2.5 million renovation after beginning construction in July, should also be open in late May, according to city officials. Highland's improvements include an updated bathhouse, a new ventilation system, and ADA improvements. The project was originally scheduled to be finished in late March or early April of this year, in time to host the regional swim meet, but is late due to delays in the design phase of the project, said Mark Matsko, public information officer for the Department of Municipal Development.

Tingley Takes Off

The Rio Grande and Highland pools aren't the only local watering holes on the verge of opening this summer. It also seems as though the Tingley Beach Improvement Project, a large-scale renovation that aims to return the area to its glory days of decades past, is finally near completion. The updates to Tingley will include four ponds: one specifically for model boating, one that's exclusively for kids (and filled with fish), and two that are dedicated to good ol' adult fishing. It will also feature picnic areas, paths and trails, a redeveloped road system, and a narrow-gauge railroad that will link between the Albuquerque Aquarium, Rio Grande Zoo and Rio Grande Botanic Garden. Eventually, a pavilion may be added to the site.

The $16.5 million project broke ground last June, after nearly a decade of brainstorming and planning, and is estimated to be finished by mid-September, said Bob Morin, Albuquerque Biological Park operations manager.

Established in the '30s, Tingley, like the Rio Grande Pool, used to be a place that culled visitors from all over the city. On the weekends, dozens of families could be found on its banks, nestled under cottonwoods with packed lunches or watching boats race out to the main island. Fishermen were also drawn to the area, and would arrive early to vie for the best spots.

But, as things tend to go, over time the once bustling ponds grew lackluster and became so shallow and garbage-ridden that it became more of an eyesore than a crown jewel of the city. The shallowness of the ponds also became a health-hazard, as the summer heat would sometimes lead to salmonella outbreaks that would leave numbers of ducks dead, said Morin.

The city finally got moving on redeveloping the area, but it took a while to get things in place. At one point, according to Robert Vigil, the developers had actually planned on cutting a road right through the Barelas neighborhood to the zoo, which would have taken down some 14 homes. The neighborhood learned of the plan when some residents attended a public meeting in the adjacent Hunin Castle neighborhood, where they had heard that Tingley would be part of the discussion. Luckily, neighbors formed a committee, and through working with the mayor and with planners, they were able to negate the plans, said Vigil. Motsko reports that the city also had not known about these plans in advance, as they were drawn up by the designers of the project; and that, upon learning about them, dismissed the plans as well.

Regardless, the project has come a long way. And although Tingley will miss the mark this year as far as opening up in time for the prime summer weather, it should definitely be open by next summer. Additionally, the Rio Grande and Highland pools are promised to be open before the summer season begins; and from the sound of it, they better be. According to Vigil, if they don't, he's going to raise a ruckus.

Call 346-0660 ext. 255 with news tips. E-mail your guest editorial or letter to letters@alibi.com. To contact the author, e-mail christie@alibi.com.

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