Unauthorized Craneway pickleball courts revive controversy

Unauthorized Craneway pickleball courts revive controversy
Richmond's Historic Craneway Pavilion. Photo/ Linda Hemmila

Reports of a pickleball net and tape marking a court at the Craneway Pavilion ignited new controversy in recent weeks, as residents once again debate the sport potentially taking up residency in one of Richmond's most historic buildings.

Just after the new year, photos circulated on social media showing a mostly empty Craneway along with two pickleball nets, and what appears to be tape indicating boundary lines for courts.

The appearance of the court reignited the debate surrounding both the sport of pickleball and the presence of a members-only club at the Craneway Pavilion.

Last year, PB Development proposed using the Craneway Pavilion as a paid-membership pickleball club with as many as 16 courts. That plan was shot down in part because the Craneway is designated for use as a public trust, which is governed by the City of Richmond, the California State Lands Commission, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The State Land Commission said the proposal did not show the pickleball club had a connection to the waterfront, and as proposed, it wouldn't serve as a benefit to the general public.

"The City is trustee of sovereign tide and submerged lands granted to it by the Legislature in 1913 (Chapter 317, Statutes of 1913 and as amended.) In 2004, the State and the City, acting as a trustee of legislatively granted Public Trust Lands, entered into a Title Settlement Agreement to resolve legal disputes of ownership in and around the Ford Motor Plant located adjacent to San Francisco Bay. The Legislature authorized the settlement in 2000 through Chapter 527, Statutes of 2000. The Agreement encumbered the Craneway Pavilion (Parcel F2) with a public trust easement, restricting uses of the parcel to public access, the use and enjoyment of water-related activities, and uses incidental to such activities including overnight accommodation, restaurants and cafes, water-related industry, museums regarding waterfront history, visitor-serving retail, boating, and ferry service. This easement is now held and managed by the City," the State Land Commission said.

Residents from all over the city voiced their opinions on social media, many of whom were firmly opposed to the project. When the photos of the newly taped off-court recently surfaced, some took it as a sign the city was going forward with the project despite vigorous opposition.

According to Shiva Mishek, Chief of Staff to Mayor Eduardo Martinez, the current courts aren't there legally and were not approved by the city.

"No permits have been taken out, and that is required before pickleball, or anything else can happen there," Mishek said.

Communication between the city and PB Development shows there is intent, at least on the side of PB Development, to pursue the idea of pickleball at the Craneway Pavilion.

There's also a website called cranewaypickleball.com that touts a plan and invites the reader to join an email list and follow developments on social media.

"The Craneway Pavilion is set to re-open as a world-class facility which will include pickleball courts, restaurant and bar, multi-use event space, a retail pro shop, and activity center. Stay tuned for big announcements coming soon!" the website states.

Richmond's Craneway Pavilion began as the Ford Assembly Plant, designed by industrial architect Albert Kahn in 1930. Added the site to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, the sprawling 45,000-square-foot facility was redesigned by Orton Development in 2004 and, since its opening, has become a community favorite, hosting numerous events each year.

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The Craneway is owned by the City of Richmond and is held in public trust. Orton Development leases the property from the city. While Orton cannot sublease the property, they do contract with tenants, referred to as "operators" who pay to utilize the space. All operators have to meet certain conditions before gaining approval to set up shop in the Craneway. Current tenants, include SunPower and Columbia Sportswear. 

An internal memo from Director of Community Development Lina Velasco confirms the city has not yet approved pickleball at the Craneway nor have they received a new application from PB Development.

"I have received the recent photos of the pickleball courts shown within the Craneway (I have been told these are taped and not painted) and have communicated with the leaseholder and the pickleball applicant advising them that this is not okay, and subject to city approval," Velasco said. "The City has not approved any new use of the site and before doing so will consult with the State Lands Commission to confirm the change of use is in line with the restrictions placed on the property," Velasco wrote.

Pickleball nets and tape marking court boundaries recently appeared at the Craneway Pavilion. Photo/ Sophia Hemmila

Velasco said the most recent correspondence she's had with the applicant includes a discussion of revisions to the original plan.

"They state they are revising the project into a restaurant, bar, and event center, but we have not received the required materials to verify the use is allowed," Velasco said.

Rachel Hong, with PB Development, also a founder of the Women's International Pickleball Association, outlined her intentions in communication with the city last December.

“This project is a restaurant and bar, it is an event center that will host the same (if not more) events than the current use, it will have activities to include pickleball, ping pong, golf simulators, pool tables, social gathering areas, a retail sporting goods store, and educational activities that focus on health and wellness all of which are open for public use,” Hong wrote.

According to Hong, these uses align with prior precedents and are allowed by the Disposition and Development Agreement and the lease between Orton Development, Inc. and the City of Richmond.

“Our uses are consistent with in-kind documents such as the Public Trust Doctrine, the San Francisco Bay Plan (SFBP), and Richmond Bay Specific Plan (RBSP) and by way of precedent of what has been allowable to date,” Hong said. "We have already engaged in conversations with local organizations such as the Rosie the Riveter Trust, Richmond Police and Fire, local schools, and other community organizations about ways we can support them by way of fundraising events."

Mishek said that once the city receives an application, much of the decision will come down to what is permissible according to the California State Lands Commission and Richmond's municipal code.

"It's very complicated and has many layers to it," Mishek said. "State lands says the public has to have access, so membership isn't going to work. The Craneway is zoned for light industrial, and what they have planned is a sports-themed restaurant with an area for pickleball. The city code says it needs to be 70 percent restaurant and 30 percent other, but their plan is 30 percent restaurant and 70 percent other."

Mishek also said despite the public perception of the mayor being involved in a deal to bring pickleball to the Craneway, there has been no such discussion.

"It's not true. And honestly, they haven't even asked for his opinion. At least not in a respectful way," Mishek said.

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