"You definitely don't think of New York as a beach town," says Dong-Ping Wong as the East River laps at his bright, white Stan Smith's. With the regular plumes of raw sewage and storm run-off that stir up the river's PCB-laced bottom whenever it rains, definitely not.
It's high tide along the East River Esplanade, a stretch of the Lower East Side waterfront recently made over and greenified by the city, and Wong has his sights set on kitting it out with a pool. Not just any pool, a plus sign-shaped, self-filtering, floating pool — and possibly one of several. Wong and his team spent last summer investigating waterfront sites and plan to announce a location next summer.
Wong calls the concept +Pool and describes it as a giant water filter that draws river water through the pool walls and uses a succession of geotextile layers to sift increasingly minute contaminants out of the water. Filtered pool water is then released back into the river, helping to clean it. He likens the floating pool to a barge that will enable New Yorkers to immerse themselves in the river safely. The pool's distinctive "plus" shape results from intersecting a lap and sports pool with a lounging pool and kids pool.
Wong and partner Oana Stanescu at Family, a Manhattan architectural design firm, launched the project five-and-a-half years ago with Brooklyn-based designers Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeff Franklin. They are based at the Columbia GSAPP Incubator, a collaborative research and work space at the New Museum's NEW INC.
"We just thought it'd be a funny idea and silly (but) it kind of made sense," says Wong, a 30-something, San Diego native who moved to New York 13 years ago to train as an architect at Columbia University. "When we started it we had no idea what impact this could have on the city, let alone if anybody would want it, so we designed it very simply and put a website up."
Within two weeks, a deluge of inquiries from around the world crashed the site and the +Pool team got a call from Arup, the international engineering giant behind the Centre Pompidou in Paris, The Sydney Opera House and New York's Second Avenue Subway. Suddenly they had a real project on their hands.
Two Kickstarter campaigns followed in quick succession. The first was a $25,000 campaign in 2011 to raise money for water quality testing.
"I think we hit our mark in six days and raised about $40,000-$45,000," says Wong. "We were sampling every 15 minutes so the amount of data we collected was just immense and the most detailed that's ever been collected on the river, as far as we can tell."
Wong and his team partnered with Google to set up a +Pool Dashboard that live-streamed the data that was being collected, providing the public with real-time information on the health of the river.
The second Kickstarter in 2013 raised $270,000, which also went toward testing. The large number of small ($25+) donations the project was receiving indicated that regular people had a strong interest in seeing the +Pool become a reality, so, with the second campaign, they offered donors a chance to own a piece of the pool.
"We basically broke down the pool into it's smallest parts, which was this kind of pool tile, and said, 'Buy a pool tile, put your name on it, eventually your name will be on what we think will be a sort of New York icon and you're really contributing to making this thing happen.' That's actually still happening now."
To date, the campaign has resulted in the sale of 3,000 to 4,000 tiles, each bearing the donor's name or custom message. The tile-naming initiative is currently one of the +Pool's biggest revenue sources.
"Because the project's developed enough, we're starting to talk to city and state (about) governmental funding. I think there's a private route we can go completely but I actually like the idea that the city has a bit of skin in the game (and) a bit of ownership in the project as well, just so that it feels like something that's civic and not just a completely private project."
Wong estimates the project is about halfway to completion. Design, engineering and research and development have, to date, been the main focus. Capital fundraising is the next step, which casts Wong and his small design team in development roles. In March, +Pool received 501(c)(3) certification from the IRS, which means it is certified as a tax-exempt, charitable organization, and started a nonprofit to raise funds for construction and maintenance of the pool. In October, they hosted their first fundraising gala.
"We've basically made it from a purely ideas project into something that's about four years away from being in the water," says Wong, whose target date for completion is summer 2020, to coincide with the Summer Olympics, scheduled that year for July 24 to Aug. 9 in Tokyo.
"That gives us plenty of time for the permitting and the regulatory process, which is a long process, especially with something that's never been done before," says Wong, who's currently in the thick of dealing with the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection and other regulatory agencies that manage public works like municipal pools, boat basins and wastewater discharge facilities around the city.
"Our pool is really interesting because it actually falls between certain codes," says Wong. "It doesn't exactly fit into anything that's written because nobody wrote a code for this kind of thing before. It's really exciting but it's also an ongoing conversation to figure out how we modify our project to fit into codes and are there even ways to modify codes to fit into our project. That's probably the longest ongoing discussion we're having."
This waterfront dialogue is taking place amid growing interest in rehabilitating urban waterfront zones around the world. Wong has been invited to speak about his pool in Copenhagen, Berlin, Munich and, in the U.S., in Houston and Memphis, and has found like-minded initiatives underway in all of these cities.
"There are other floating pools.... There's a great one in Copenhagen.... There's an existing project in Berlin which (consists of) finding a part of the river where they can plant a lot of reeds and maybe clarify the river a little bit," says Wong. "They're putting a pool into the Thames probably in the next few years.... There's a group in Houston trying to cordon off a part of the bayou so people can swim."
The level of interest has been such that Wong has started an informal coalition he calls "The City River Swimming Club" to create a network of urban waterfront pools that members can use in major cities around the world.
"There are parks coming back to the river, but the idea that you could actually go for a morning swim as part of your routine or have a lunch break and go for a swim and really have that be part of your daily life is pretty amazing," says Wong from his wet riverside niche, where seagulls have begun to gather around him in anticipation of snack.
"Here, I actually live closer to the river than I ever have to the ocean but you never think of New York as a beach town. My life has nothing to do with the river on a day-to-day basis aside from this project, but you feel that starting to change in the city."