Pickleball enthusiasts, worried their courts might be lost in a refresh of the Tennis Club at Newport Beach, got the City Council to kick back the proposal to have their courts made official in the plans.
But Robert O Hill, who is the managing member of several partners in the project, said there was never any intention of eliminating pickleball from the club’s offerings – with the sport’s rise in popularity, the players are a key customer and only three of the 31 existing pickleball courts were going to be eliminated.
Now the Tennis & Pickleball Club, which has been popular for decades and, during the pandemic, converted some of its tennis courts to pickleball, is adjacent to the Newport Beach Country Club. Hill’s plan has been to refresh the property with new amenities, including 20 small, one-story bungalows and 22 lofts in two three-story buildings that will separate the Tennis & Pickleball Club from the golf course. There would also be a spa, a lap pool, a yoga pavilion, a pilates studio, a fitness center, a new locker room and a concierge area built.
The private tennis club has been in Newport Beach for 60 years, first starting as the Irvine Racquet Club and then becoming the Balboa Bay Racquet Club. In 2009, it became the Tennis Club at Newport Beach.
The club has an exclusive following and its tournaments – both tennis and pickleball – are shown on major networks like ABC and ESPN.
With the support of the city’s Planning Commission in hand, O Hill went before the City Council in September with the improvement proposal. He used his original development plan, approved 10 years ago, with some recent tweaks and hoped for the council’s approval, But the pickleballers raised concerns the plans didn’t talk about their courts.
O Hill asked the council to “trust him” that the project will have pickleball courts even though the plans they reviewed only mentioned wanting to “increase the number of approved tennis courses by one.”
“There are pickleball courts on the grounds now,” he said, adding neither the club’s operator, Grandslam, nor his group, the landlord, “want to take them away. Our plan was to come back someday and get them officially approved.”
“When we got to the City Council meeting,” O Hill said, “a bunch of confused pickleball players started waving their paddles.”
The City Council after more discussion last week decided, 5-2, it needed to all be made official and send the project back to the Planning Commission to ensure that the project plans accurately reflect what the developer intended. They said the pickleball courts would require separate approvals and might even have to go before the Coastal Commission if they were submitted later, and that they would also require a separate traffic analysis and another Planning Commission review.
“No one would submit plans for a home remodel showing a garden where a pool will go and just ask the city to ‘trust’ that the plans for a pool would be submitted,” Councilman Will O’Neil said following the meeting. “Similarly, we expect people to submit accurate project descriptions. Trust comes with a transparent process, which does not involve one-off precedents.”
Mayor Kevin Muldoon, who, with Councilwoman Diane Dixon, opposed pushing the project back to the Planning Commission, said he believed O Hill would have stayed true to his word.
“It’s a lively club and he’s pledged to do it,” Muldoon said. “The trend is to have pickleball drawn on top of tennis courts. When it’s all constructed, he’ll put lines on the courts. He’s already running the tennis club as a pickleball club with the staff’s blessing.”
O Hill, who said he likes to play an occasional game of pickleball himself, is moving forward and has already submitted a new application, including a $13,000 application fee to the city. The submission includes the removal of the three pickleball courts from the existing supply to make space for the new fitness center and locker room. A mini-stadium center court for tennis equipped for television broadcasts is also part of the plans.
A parking analysis will also be done O Hill said, and believes he will have enough space for what will be required. Currently, the city demands four parking spots for each tennis court, but his consultant is researching what should be included for pickleball, he said.
“Pickleball is a very social game. Most tennis people drive separately, but pickleball people come together – often in families,” he said. “The thing that makes it extra social is that you’ve got young and old people playing. You can compete and have fun.”
O Hill said he expects to have no problems meeting the parking requirements and he hopes the city approvals will be done in the next five months. But, he added, the current project probably won’t be completed for another seven years.
In the meantime, pickleball players can continue to enjoy the current setup, he said. “When it’s over, they get this unbelievable enhancement.”