NYC’s In-River Swimming Pool Lands $16 Million as Designers Get Into Dispute

Here’s a reminder of how long radical ideas can take to execute, and what can go wrong along the way when you try to get multiple creatives on the same page.

In 2010 designers Archie Lee Coates IV, Jeffrey Franklin, Oana Stanescu and Dong-Ping Wong came up with the idea to build a swimming pool in the East River of New York City. “The walls of the pool would be constructed of filtration materials,” we wrote in 2011, “that would eliminate the nasties in three stages, blocking out everything from garbage to bacteria.” The quartet named the idea + POOL and successfully Kickstarted it, landing $41,647 earmarked for testing the proposed filtration design.

Two years passed, and the group held another successful Kickstarter to further develop + POOL, this time landing $273,114. That was in 2013. Later that year, + POOL was named one of Time Magazine’s Top 25 Inventions of 2013. The group subsequently held multiple fundraisers to further fund the idea, and in 2015 launched a nonprofit to help develop + POOL.

By 2019, + POOL had still not materialized, but the group applied for permission to site +POOL in the East River from NYC’s Economic Development Corporation. By 2021 they had the green light.

It’s now 2024, 14 years after the idea was born. What did the group do with the $314,761 collected through Kickstarter and whatever money came from the subsequent fundraisers? According to the group, a lot has been accomplished:

“We’ve worked with engineers at Arup to study the structure, mechanics, and filtration systems, and ecological consultants at One Nature to maximize + POOL’s benefit to the environment. We’ve spent six weeks on a pier in the East River testing different filtration materials and learned about enterococci and fecal coliform from professors at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. We’ve worked with innovation designers at IDEO and naval architects Persak & Wurmfeld to design + POOL’s floating structure. We tested the filtration concept in the harbor for five months. We filed and have been issued design and utility patents. We studied the feasibility of various sites with marine engineers at McLaren Engineering throughout the harbor to understand what physical conditions are ideal for + POOL. We advocated for city and state agencies to create a pathway for river swimming. We helped establish regulations for public access with government agencies where there were none.”

Earlier this month, the group announced they had landed $16 million in New York City and state funding to build + POOL.

At the same time, things have gotten a bit ugly. Architect Dong-Ping Wong, one of the original four, wrote on Instagram that “I invented and designed + POOL,” and referred to receiving the $16 million in funding as “bittersweet.” He elaborates:

“When I started + POOL the goal wasn’t to just build a pool. The goal was to see if it was possible to make big civic changes to the city from the ground up for places that often get overlooked.”

“When we decided to start a nonprofit in 2015, it was based on the ideal that a non-profit would protect the project from private interests and ensure it remained a project truly for everyone.”

“As the project became more reliant on the philanthropic ecosystem of New York, and ascended into fancier rooms and levels of power, the ideals that grounded the project in the first place slowly gave way to interests that prioritized money, exposing the project to the levers of gentrification.”

“I have expressed my concerns to the leadership about the long standing lack of diversity of the + POOL board. I have also suggested multiple times that the organization needed clear guidelines with which to address the discrimination that public swimming pools have historically exacerbated. These issues were repeatedly dismissed, I was frozen out of the project, and to date I am unaware of any true community involvement with the residents of Chinatown [where + POOL provisional location is].”

For their part, Coates IV, Franklin and Stanescu deny that Wong has been frozen out of the project.

The + POOL prototype will reportedly be built this year.