Everybody into the pool (not you, kid)

Mario DeAngelis and Katie Gray, both of Old City, chill in the pool at the Arrow Swim Club. Developer Bart Blatstein said he barred children in order to appeal to neighborhood residents, mostly young, childless adults.
Mario DeAngelis and Katie Gray, both of Old City, chill in the pool at the Arrow Swim Club. Developer Bart Blatstein said he barred children in order to appeal to neighborhood residents, mostly young, childless adults. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)

A splashy Northern Liberties swim club has set itself apart by banning anyone under 21.

Posted: June 08, 2011

You can get fined for wading in Philadelphia's waterways. Driving to and from the Shore on a weeknight is a lesson in traffic patience. Public pools close at 7 p.m., and two of the city's long-standing swim clubs have waiting lists years long. How much would you pay for a daily dip on these hot summer nights?

A pair of entrepreneurs in Northern Liberties are betting you'll fork over $1,000. That's the price for a season membership at Arrow Swim Club, the city's newest oasis, located across the street from the Piazza at Schmidts in the former site of Arrow Screw & Machine Works.

Taking its cues more from lavish hotel resorts and country clubs than from traditional swim clubs, Bart Blatstein's newest addition to Northern Liberties distinguishes itself from Lombard Swim Club in Center City, University City Swim Club, and virtually every other private pool in the city by banning kids.

"It's kind of, the Hamptons meets Miami meets Scottsdale, Ariz.," said Jacklin Rhoads, an account executive at Cashman and Associates, during a tour of the club. Nicole Cashman, president and CEO of the public relations agency, is a partner with Blatstein.

"We wanted to do something unique," said Cashman. "We don't want it to be like the others."

Conventional swim clubs tend to emphasize swimming first and leisure second. "We're all about the water," said Nancy Drye, membership coordinator for University City, which has four pools and serves 450 families. Swimming lessons for kids, water aerobics for grandparents, lap lanes, kiddie pools - these are elements you won't find at the Northern Liberties pool.

Arrow, which has filled about half its 1,000 membership slots since opening May 15, is more about lifestyle than freestyle. The emblematic sounds of the swimming pool are replaced by the pop music arrangements of various guest DJs who spin from a makeshift booth in the club's corner. The 4½-foot-deep pool is the centerpiece of the facility, but really it's just one of the leisure features.

The requisite reclining chairs surrounding the outdoor pool are outfitted with thick white pads and pillows. Movable canvas sunshades are scattered throughout the rows of recliners. A series of plush cabanas each have a couch, Moroccan-style floor cushions, an armoire, a flat-screen television, and an Xbox. The club has a full bar, serving beer and cocktails from 9 a.m., when the club opens. (Lombard's adult deck features occasional complimentary drink service for members.) Free WiFi and food are available. There's no sauna, but you can get a massage or a manicure and pedicure, or take a morning yoga class, and a server's sole assignment is bringing drinks to people in the pool.

"It's a bachelor-y kind of place," said Delia Geiger, a 28-year-old makeup artist, visiting the club for a private party one evening in May. It was one of a handful of events in the last month to showcase Arrow. "If I didn't have children, I'd want to join."

And therein lies the club's greatest appeal - or biggest drawback: No one under 21 is allowed inside.

For some young professionals in Northern Liberties, the adults-only rule is a key attraction.

"You're paying for a more mature crowd," said a Piazza tenant leaving the club on an 81-degree day in May. (Arrow has offered Piazza residents a free trial, Mondays through Thursdays, until next Wednesday.) "Kids aren't running around, screaming and cannonballing right in front of you."

Arrow members signed up so far come from as far away as Cherry Hill and Delaware, Cashman said, and include hairdressers, schoolteachers, engineers, lawyers, and real estate brokers. She knows this because there's a section of the membership application for occupational details. Applicants are required to give their Social Security numbers, and membership is contingent on a criminal background check. "It's not for exclusivity purposes," Cashman said. The club has turned away just a handful of applicants, she said, and applicants have been rejected only because of criminal records.

"We want this to be a place where someone can set their handbag down without having to worry about it," Cashman said.

But a question on the minds of many in Northern Liberties is whether the club will one day evolve into a family-friendly venue - as the neighborhood has in recent years.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand for swim facilities for 21-and-over but also for families," said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. "I think there's curiosity to see if they'll include a family component later on."

Blatstein said he didn't allow children at Arrow because of space constraints and a desire to attract the majority of neighborhood residents, mostly young, childless adults. He said he doesn't intend to change Arrow, but hinted at a "Phase II" swim club in the works - a separate, child-friendly facility. There's already a public pool a few blocks away from Arrow, on Fairmount Avenue near Fourth Street.

While the Piazza is a hit with the community, it remains to be seen whether Arrow can meet the competition - especially when membership is more expensive than that at Lombard ($980 per adult for the season) and University City ($925).

"Thank goodness that I bought mine in 1980," said Susan Herron, a director on Lombard swim club's board, where a mere 60 to 70 slots opened for new members this year - less than 6 percent of the total membership. "It's hard to come by."

There are a handful of private pools on the rooftops of Center City high-rises and fitness centers, and the city intends to open its 70 outdoor pools and five indoor pools from June 22 through mid-August (Arrow will stay open until Oct. 16).

But Danielle Devans and her husband, Sean, who joined Arrow in April, described a public pool in her South Philly neighborhood as "chaotic." Stretched out in Arrow's recliners one evening, they discussed their decision to join.

"I liked [the public pool] more than you did," said Sean, turning to Danielle. "It makes me feel young again, but . . . ."

"I wanted a place to relax outside, with no kids," Danielle replied.

What about heading to the Shore?

"I really don't have time to get out on the weekends anymore," Danielle said. "I can come here for a half a Saturday."

"I don't think we'll give up going to the Shore," Sean said.

"Well, it's the first year," Danielle said. "We'll see."


Contact staff writer Gregory Thomas at 215-854-5289 or gthomas@philly.com.

 

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