Pickleball and tennis players alike are calling for fair playing time and space in Menlo Park as the city looks to build upon an existing program for the popular paddle sport.
A similar, sometimes-contentious scene has been playing out across the Peninsula with cities trying to respond to the demand to accommodate pickleball, which has become America’s fastest-growing sport but often takes over tennis courts.
On Wednesday night, Sept. 27, the Menlo Park Parks and Recreation Commission studied various development options and timelines for the future of the city’s pickleball offerings. The commission also fielded plenty of thoughts and concerns from pickleball and tennis enthusiasts, many of whom enjoy both sports.
“I've been playing tennis for about 45 years and pickleball for about four years,” Jim Carson said, addressing the commission. “So I get both sides and absolutely agree we need to hang on to both.”
But Carson contended that because of pickleball’s rapid rise Menlo Park has to act sooner than later on proposals that address the growth.
So while the city should support both pickleball and tennis, he said, it needs “to up the priority (and) lessen the time period for those proposals and get some action done.”
While he loves playing tennis, David Bingham told commissioners, he does like pickleball. “I think that we can accommodate both the tennis and the pickleball players by building more pickleball courts,” Bingham said. “And I think it would be really tragic to sacrifice more tennis courts to accommodate the pickleball players,” particularly given that many of them come from other cities.
Pickleball is a paddle game that combines tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Multiple pickleball courts can be superimposed onto one tennis court.
Currently, Menlo Park has eight pickleball courts – four at Nealon Park on Middle Avenue and four at Kelly Park in Belle Haven. Added striping and different netting on two tennis courts – one at Nealon and another at Kelly – allow for pickleball play.
Among the proposals that the commission is studying is permanently converting the tennis court at Nealon or Kelly for pickleball. In a report to the commission, city staff marked this option as potentially a high priority with a possible timeframe of three to 12 months.
A high-priority but longer-term option would be to construct two new, dedicated pickleball courts at Willow Oaks Park. This approach, possibly taking 12 to 36 months, “would increase the city’s total number of pickleball courts without decreasing or reducing other existing tennis or basketball courts and would provide the opportunity to design courts specifically for pickleball,” staff said in the report.
Lower-priority alternatives are converting the outdoor basketball court at Burgess Park to up to three pickleball areas and creating additional space for the paddle sport at Nealon, staff said.
The commission also needs to consider varying issues accompanying the proposals, from having to install noise-dampening material around pickleball courts to cross-promoting the sport with other amenities as a way to boost the underutilized court at Kelly Park, staff said.
Commissioners appeared to favor the proposal making the pickleball courts at Kelly Park permanent. This option could entail removing the tennis configuration there and updating the striping exclusively for pickleball.
Upgrading the pickleball courts at Kelly should attract people who don’t play there now, Commissioner Wonman Lee said.
Noting that Kelly Park, located at 100 Terminal Ave., is near U.S. Highway 101, Lee said the noise from increased pickleball activity shouldn’t make a difference. “You can make all the noise you want and it won’t affect anybody,” he said.
Commissioner Kelsey Theriault agreed, saying, “There really isn't a noise burden on the community” in establishing a pickleball site at Kelly.
In contrast, commissioners were wary of adding more pickleball courts at Nealon Park, located at 800 Middle Ave. and surrounded by homes.
“One thing I’ve heard is that pickleball’s a community sport or fosters a community,” Lee said. “So if we were to expand courts on Nealon, I’m afraid that more people would go to Nealon and play, and then there’ll be more people waiting. There’ll be more noise. So I don’t really think that’s an option given how Nealon is located.”
Commissioner Jessica Gilmartin expressed strong reservations about the option to turn the basketball court at Burgess into a pickleball site. “That basketball court is always used,” Gilmartin said. “It is used all the time, and it's used by kids and teenagers. Anything that removes athletics for kids and teenagers, I would have a hard time supporting that.”
A related consideration before the commission involves a court-user fee. Currently, the city charges for a key to access a tennis court. The fee generates about $40,000 in cost-recovery revenue every year, according to staff. At this time, however, no key or fee is required to access a pickleball court.
The city could continue the current fee structure, staff said, or give residents a key for free while still charging non-residents. Another scenario could be to levy the fee for some courts but not others. Or the city could just open all the courts for free.
The commission’s study session was part of a process to incorporate pickleball into the city’s Parks and Recreation master plan and review potential fee changes.
Feedback during the session will help staff draft revisions to the master plan and fee structure.
Staff is expected to have the proposed revisions ready on Nov. 15 for the commission to look over before possibly sending them to the City Council for approval.
The town of Atherton is exploring a pilot program with two pickleball courts striped over an existing tennis configuration at Holbrook-Palmer Park. Part of that effort was studying the pickleball program offered to members of the private Menlo Circus Club. Atherton is also checking if it could borrow baffling material that the club is no longer using for its pickleball courts.
San Mateo County plans to build pickleball courts as part of its renovation of Flood Park at 215 Bay Road in Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay, like Menlo Park, is considering expanding its existing pickleball program.
According to the Maryland-based trade organization Sports & Fitness Industry Association in August, pickleball participation nationwide rose by 85.7% year-over-year with 8.9 million players in 2022.