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Residents of the capital's German Colony neighborhood fear that a beloved Jerusalem landmark may soon evoke the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's famous song "Big Yellow Taxi," in which the folk diva decries that "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
The storied Jerusalem Swimming Pool, or Breichat Yerushalayim, as it's referred to locally, faces the possibility of a similar fate, and German Colony residents, along with Jerusalemites from across the city who have grown to love the capital's only Olympic-sized pool, are banding together to save it.
While long-overdue repairs and the purported financial losses have long stoked rumors of the pool's closure, pool-goers' fears materialized some three weeks ago, when it was announced that their memberships would not be extended past December 31.
"Extensive renovations," the management claimed in its public announcement, were behind the indefinite hiatus.
"But this came after weeks of rumors about a possible [permanent] closure of the pool," said longtime pool member Haim Watzman, who co-writes the well-known southjerusalem.com blog, and who belongs to the newly formed Action Committee to Save the Jerusalem Pool.
"We were told that the facility's owners, Moshav Shoresh and the Ela Brothers [construction firm], had gone to the local council and asked that the property be re-zoned for commercial construction. There's even been talk of a parking garage being built on top of the pool," he said.
Other stories were being told as well, Watzman said, including a rumor that the pool, which was built in the 1950s, was going to be shortened from its current 50-meter Olympic length to something closer to 30 meters, and rumblings that the Health Ministry, which oversees inspections of the pool, had demanded major repairs that would be extremely expensive.
"But we made inquiries with the Health Ministry, and found that what they're demanding is actually routine stuff," Watzman said. "Things that don't justify a long-term closure of the pool."
In a written response sent to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, the ministry did list problems its inspectors had found with the pool's water treatment and drainage systems, but nothing that was deemed extremely problematic.
The underlying issue, according to the response, was that "the pool's management is not repairing these problems, because they claim the pool has been slated for demolition in preparation for new construction at the site."
This, Watzman said, was truly a problem, because he and his colleagues knew of no official steps that had been taken toward such a development. "Nothing is official yet," he said. "Nothing has been submitted in writing."
Additionally, the action committee approached an urban planner from the German Colony's neighborhood council to look into the matter, who Watzman said came back with "encouraging facts."
"The land is zoned as 'green,' meaning it cannot be built upon," he said. "And on top of that, the building plans specifically designate the property as a pool. In the 1980s, when the Ela Brothers purchased the property, it was done so on the condition that they continue operating the pool. If they were to build anything on top of the swimming pool, it would be a violation of their building license."
The Ela Brothers refused to confirm or deny any such plans for the pool.
"I don't want to say yes or no [about plans to build on the site]," Rami Ela said by phone on Thursday. "You've gotten my response."
"We've suspected for some time that the owners were deliberately running down the facility to make it unattractive," Watzman said. "Repairs haven't been done for a long time, but with minor effort, the place could even turn a profit."
Still, even with seemingly solid legal backing, Watzman said that the action committee was concerned about developments that might go on outside of the official context.
"Our fear is that some kind of back-handed deal is going to take place, and developers will start a project, even without a license, and then complain that they've already invested money, and demand a license," he said. "But that's why we need to be on the ball. The minute it's on the books we have to pounce on it."
"We're hiring a lawyer," he added. "So that if need be, a stop-order could be issued on any pending work."
At the end of the day, Watzman said his efforts and those of his cohorts were to protect a place that had found its way into many a resident's heart.
"We feel that the pool is an important facility, not just for the neighborhood, but for the whole city," he said. "There's a swim team that holds weekly practices there, a number of facilities for the disabled, and it's one of the few places that Arabs and Jews mix freely. There are also special hours for haredi swimmers - Monday nights are designated for women and Wednesday nights are designated for men."
"It's part of the texture of life in the neighborhood and we want to keep it open. We don't intend on letting it close down."