Coral Gables

Want to take a dip in the Venetian Pool? Get there early or get turned away

Visitors enter the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables on Friday, August 11, 2017.
Visitors enter the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables on Friday, August 11, 2017. Miami Herald

The Venetian Pool beckons during Miami’s scalding endless summer with its spring-fed, 77-degree water guaranteed to provide relief that penetrates bone deep.

But the fanciful Coral Gables landmark, carved out of a coral rock quarry in 1924, has become so popular and so aggravating to neighboring residents whose yards are overrun with cars that crowd capacity has been lowered to 450. Once the limit is reached, the pool is closed for the day, often by noon on weekends.

Frustrated swimmers seeking an escape from the sun in the dark grotto or a chilly blast from the waterfalls are being turned away if they don’t get in line early.

“We came from Kendall to cool off,” said Fernando Estevez, who brought his two kids on a recent Sunday only to find the pool closed. He peered through the fence and shrugged. “We love the Venetian Pool but like everything else in Miami, it’s gotten too crowded, too expensive, too much of a hassle.”

The pool, which used to reach a peak of about 1,000 visitors per day, has also raised its fees to $20 for non-resident adults and $15 for non-resident children aged 3-12 to compensate for the restricted number of patrons. Fees for adult residents are $5.75, and $4.75. for child residents.

The pool, located at 2701 DeSoto Blvd., has been winnowing its maximum capacity — first to 800, then 600 — for the past three years, and this year decided not to reopen once capacity is reached. They city settled on this system in response to neighbors’ complaints about overflow parking, litter and noise. The controls are also meant to make the pool experience more enjoyable for visitors and reduce wear and tear on the facility, which has undergone extensive renovations. The pool’s two parking lots have only 80 spaces.

“We used to reopen as people left, but that turned out to be impractical,” said Carolina Vester, assistant director of Coral Gables Parks and Recreation. “We had lots of people waiting for hours in the heat and there were some health incidents in addition to creating a fire hazard in the entry area. It was difficult for the staff to coordinate the coming and going and it led to confrontational situations. Plus the parking was out of control with cars and trash everywhere.”

“We had to look at options to improve quality of life and safety at the pool, keep the neighbors happy and preserve the facility.”

Now staff members do a count and tell people waiting in line when the line will be cut off. Opening hours at the pool through Aug. 20 are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. After Aug. 20, weekday hours will be from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“The staff was initially worried about the new closure policy and they had a rough time during the first few weeks,” Vester said. “We’ve had long lines to get in and long lines at the concession stand. But now people are saying it is better overall.

“Of course, a lot of people who don’t get in are unhappy. We are sympathetic to the people who drove down from Fort Lauderdale and found the doors were closed because we’re full.”

Susan Adams has lived next door on DeSoto for 20 years.

“People were parking all over the swales and lawns and tearing up the grass. It was chaotic,” she said. “Then the city responded and cracked down. We asked for a ‘No Parking’ sign and they put one up. They’ve got an enforcement officer out on the weekends. They also put in a crosswalk from the parking lot and that has helped. We’re appreciative of people respecting the neighbors.”

Patrons are directed to overflow parking at Salvador Park and are encouraged to bike or use Uber to the pool. City Commissioner Vince Lago advocates implementing a trolley shuttle from downtown lots.

Vester said usage patterns at the pool have also changed. Patrons are staying longer, making a day-long outing rather than a two-hour visit.

“The trend is toward locals getting there early and staying, although we still have tourists who get dropped off for a shorter period,” she said. “It’s become a destination. It also costs more so they want to get their money’s worth.

“We did a fee study and found our prices are consistent with other attractions. The Venetian Pool is kind of a hybrid between a water park and a regular lap pool. We’ve also made infrastructure improvements to renovate and clean it and people are taking advantage.”

About 95 percent of daily admission visitors are not Coral Gables residents, although Vester has seen an uptick in residents this year — and more residents tend to participate in lessons and camps. Last year, 1,815 visitors were residents, 30,241 were non-residents and 211 were tourists. In 2015 those numbers were 1,643 residents, 31,263 non-residents and 352 tourists.

Catherine Kiel has lived in Coral Gables since the 1950s. She said she used to go to the pool as a kid but finds it too cold and too crowded.

“It’s become overused – it’s like our Disneyland; everyone flocks there,” she said. “I think I’d like it on a quiet day. Maybe I’ll venture over once school starts.”

The pool, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, is a quaint and invigorating marvel. Designed by Denman Fink to be consistent with George Merrick’s Mediterranean-themed city, it used to host aquatic shows in the 1920s. Every day, its 820,000 gallons are drained and the pool is refilled — a seven-hour process. The water from the Biscayne Aquifer filters through limestone, so the pool requires less chlorination than most.

“It is an iconic treasure for our city,” Lago said. “We have to consider the person on vacation who only has one day in Coral Gables, goes to the Venetian Pool and gets turned away. That sells the city short and makes us look like we’re not welcoming.”

A prominent warning on the pool’s website states: “Please be aware that the Venetian Pool will cease the sale of admission tickets once the facility has reached its maximum capacity.” Vester wants to implement a real-time feature on the site and on the pool’s phone line notifying people when the pool is full. She’s also considering pre-sale of tickets.

“We’re trying to preserve a historic landmark and make sure everyone has a great time,” Vester said. “The fact that it’s in high demand is a good sign. It’s also clear that there are not enough pools and water parks in South Florida.”

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