BELL GARDENS — Jesus Sanchez used to watch hundreds of locals flock to the John Anson Ford Park pool before authorities shut it down in 2017 for health and safety concerns.

Nearly seven years later, the pool remains closed, portions of its plastered walls are crumbling, and a project to tear it down to make room for a multi-million aquatics center has yet to start. 

At a January 22 meeting, the Bell Gardens City Council voted to hire a construction company to demolish the old pool and build the new aquatics center, carving a path forward for the stagnant and long-awaited project. 

Dubbed the John Anson Ford Park Regional Aquatics Center, the project has been marred in a financial and regulatory roller coaster due to previous uncertainty in securing funds for its construction. Now, in 2024, it looks like construction will finally move forward. 

Bell Gardens Public Works Director Bernardo Iñiguez said the city and construction company Bernard Bros. were in the process of exchanging contract documents, and the order to break ground to remove the old pool will arrive when these steps are completed.

The project is expected to cost more than $31 million in total, according to a report from the Bell Gardens City Manager.

Jesus Sanchez, a longtime visitor to the John Anson Ford Park in Bell Gardens. He said hundreds of swimmers flocked to the pool behind him before the city closed its doors due to safety, sanitary and access concerns.

What will the new project look like?

The expanded state-of-the-art aquatics center will have three pools, including a 50-meter Olympic-size pool, a youth’s pool with water slides, and a therapy pool. There will also be space for a lobby, administrative offices, a gym, modern locker rooms with outdoor ventilation, shaded and grass areas to rest, picnic tables, restrooms, palm trees, and facilities that comply with the American with Disabilities Act. 

The aquatics center’s estimated cost was revised last year to be nearly $31.3 million, according to a staff report prepared for the City Council meeting.

Iñiguez said the project’s footprint includes the current pool and adjacent building area, and only a few trees will be cut to make room for a therapeutic pool. His update counters previous estimates that called for up to 31 trees to be chopped, including a mix of old eucalyptus, queen palms, and crape myrtles.

“We are not redoing the whole park. We are essentially demolishing the existing footprint,” Iñiguez said. 

The construction contract is good for 360 working days, according to the staff report.  

Why has it taken so long?

After the City Council voted to close the crumbling pool in 2017, the city received an initial $6 million grant from the California State Parks’ Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2021 to begin tearing down the pool and ancillary buildings.

However, delays began to mount due to a lack of permit to demolish the facility from the U.S. National Park Service. 

After the National Park Service issued the permit in August 2022, demolition was halted again, this time because the Los Angeles County Development Authority required Bell Gardens to prove the aquatics center would be fully financed before allowing the pool’s deconstruction.

City Manager Michael O’Kelly also had warned the City Council that completion of the project, first slated for winter 2022, would be postponed if the city failed to obtain additional money to fund the complex fully. 

A city sign posted inside the fenced pool facility at the John Anson Ford Park in Bell Gardens. The sign wrongly projected the new aquatics center would be ready on winter 2022.

By year’s end, the project had garnered $16.67 million in contributions from various local, state, and federal agencies including California State Parks’ Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Additionally, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia secured $2 million from the state budget, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard secured $1.5 million via Housing and Urban Development Community Project Funding, and Fourth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn secured  $4 million from the LA County budget for the project. 

Despite these contributions, there remained a large financial gap. Eager to avert more delays, the City Council approved to shift $14.6 million from its general fund budget in January 2023 in order to pay for the aquatics center. 

Even after all this, the delays continued throughout 2023, largely due to the fact Bell Gardens still had to open bids for companies that complied with state and local regulations to do the job – including vetting four bidders that made the final selection list, ensuring they were qualified to remove asbestos from the old building, demolishing the pool, and building the new complex following that comply with ADA requirements. 

After she announced the Board of Supervisors’ financial commitment, Hahn said public pools are vital to keep healthy neighborhoods, they are few and far between, and the resources for this project would bring back life to a Bell Gardens asset that nearby Southeast Los Angeles neighbors would also enjoy. 

For his part, Bell Gardens Mayor Jorgel Chavez vowed to press U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, Sen. Laphonza Butler, and California 42nd District Rep. Robert Garcia to allocate more funds to rebuild the aquatic center. 

Chavez said he met with the area’s Congressional delegation recently and laid out the need for federal resources to develop local infrastructure. 

“We need their support for some of these projects that we are looking at. We’ve been planning, we’ve been working in the aquatics center for quite a while, even prior to my election to this council,” said Chavez from the dais on January 22. “And believe it, the aquatics center is one of the biggest priorities for this council, and we will continue pushing it until it is fully built.”

To compensate for the lost activities, the Recreation and Community Services Department partnered with the city of Montebello in 2021 to offer swim classes to hundreds of youth, adults, and seniors at the Chet Holifield Park Pool. 

Swim classes are hosted at the pool located at 1060 S. Greenwood Ave. on Tuesdays and Thursdays afternoons and Saturdays mornings. The city has also arranged free transportation for enrollees without cars.

Bell Gardens recreation leader Guadalupe Huerta, who along with Jaime Sanchez works at the Chet Holifield Park pool when it opens for swim lessons, said the new aquatics center may attract up to 400 folks on hot summer days. 

“It’s going to be a lot of people. It kind of reminds me of the La Mirada facility,” said Huerta. “A lot of people have been coming since because of the location. They come with family members and friends.”