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Floating swimming pool to dock at 31st Street Harbor

Chicago's newest harbor at 31st Street has filled less than half its boat slips, but it's about to make a splash.

A floating swimming pool, a pool deck and washroom facilities are under construction, and a floating restaurant is planned for the city's harbor, now in its third season.

In fact, crews removed a few boat slips from the harbor, which opened in 2012, to install the pool, deck and bathrooms—all of which are on the same dock.

A harbor manager said that doesn't mean they're getting out of the boat-docking business.

"We are continuing to try to attract more boaters there," said Scott Stevenson, vice president of Westrec Marinas, which manages the city's harbor system.

The pricetag for the new pool and bathrooms is pegged at $1.6 million and was paid for by revenue bonds to be repaid with boater fees. The pool deck will be furnished with lounge chairs and cabanas and the bathrooms will be operational in the coming days, while the pool is expected to be completed in the next two weeks, Stevenson said.

Boaters who dock at the harbor won't have to pay to use the pool and bathrooms; rather, use of the facilities are included in their slip fees, Stevenson said. Residents and tourists who don't own boats must fork over $12 for a one-day guest pass or $240 for an annual membership, he said.

Steps away from the harbor, it's free to dip your toes in the lake at 31st Street beach. But the $12 fee to use the new pool is fair, said Alyce Scott as she sat on the sand. "I would probably try it just to try something different," said Scott, 26, of Hyde Park.

The park district runs dozens of pools across the city and there is no entrance fee to hop in the pools.

Plans are in the works, too, for a restaurant at the harbor. The Chicago Park District, the umbrella city agency that oversees the harbors, is awaiting proposals to design, build and operate the restaurant. There's no pricetag for the restaurant, officials say, but the plan is to build it next to the pool, Stevenson said. The eatery will be open to the public.

At the northern end of the harbor, next to the beach, boaters and others can now grab food and drinks at the Pier 31 beachfront restaurant and bar.

Map of 31st Street Harbor before rennovations; credit: Google Maps

The floating pool measures 20 feet by 55 feet and is believed to be one of only a handful of floating swimming pools in the country, Stevenson said.

That includes a swimming pool in a floating barge docked at Barretto Point Park in the Bronx. Last year, Baltimore unveiled a harbor revitalization plan that included a floating swimming pool. A floating public swimming pool rests in the harbor on a river in Berlin. And don't forget about that proposal in June to bring a floating entertainment venue with a swimming pool to Lake Michigan.

The idea to bring that floating feature to Chicago came after Stevenson saw a swimming pool at the Alton Marina downstate near St. Louis.

"I really liked the concept and thought that would be an amenity both the community and boaters would really enjoy," he said.

Brittany Thornton said she would check out the pool, especially since she's at the harbor often on her friend's boat. "A floating pool? That sounds cool," said Thornton, 28, who lives in Bronzeville. "I've never seen anything like it."

The $103 million harbor, with roughly 350 of its 1,000 boats slips in use, isn't just a parking spot for watercraft.

The harbor, which was funded by boater fees, features a playground with a climbing wall, an indoor parking garage topped with a 63,000-square-foot green roof used as a picnic area and a public fishing dock.

At 31st Street Harbor, boaters pay a mooring rate of $108 per foot to dock at a 35-foot stall plus a 7 percent city tax for a total of $4,044 for the season, which runs from May 1 to Oct. 31. A moratorium on the 25 percent non-resident surcharge is in effect.

The city's 10 harbors count 6,000 boat spots, but officials were not able to provide details on how many of those spots are taken.

Despite not being fully occupied, the harbors bring a chunk of money—$24.2 million—into the park district's coffers, according to its $425.6 million budget for 2014.

Overall, revenue from harbor fees were estimated this year to be 3.6 percent lower than last year and 12 percent lower compared with 2012, according to the park budget.

Friends of the Parks president Cassandra  Francis had a few concerns about the project, such as using revenue bonds at a time when harbor revenues are declining and charging the public a fee when most pools are free. She also questioned what will be done to the pool during the winter and how the park district plans to protect it during extreme weather, she said.

Aside from anchoring up to the "playpen" party scene near Navy Pier, the 31st Street Harbor could be the next cool spot to hang out on the water.

"It's going to give a new destination to boaters," said Greer Bickley, owner of Carefree Boat Club in Chicago, which gives its members access to its fleet of 10 boats docked at the harbor.

To John Gibbs, who owns Chicago Water Sport Rentals at that dock, the location is a sweet spot. The new amenities of a pool and restaurant, he said, "makes it more of a real harbor waterfront destination."

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