Just about every morning for the past three weeks, Kathy Danaher has headed to Mitchell Park to partake in Palo Alto's hottest craze: pickleball.
The sport, a paddle-and-ball contest that combines the structure of doubles tennis, the scoring system of Ping-Pong and the social elements of golf, has prompted hundreds of players to make the daily pilgrimage to the tennis courts, where temporary markings establish the pickleball peripheries.
Danaher describes pickleball as the ultimate inclusive sport: a senior-friendly game that also welcomes younger and faster players. Now mostly retired, she said she has played golf for more than 20 years but is now turning her back on that sport because of pickleball.
"One reason the sport is catching on is because it's so welcoming," Danaher said. "Anyone who is interested is encouraged to come in, and we'll give you a paddle and teach you how to play."
Pickleball's growing clout has not gone unnoticed at City Hall, where the City Council recently passed a special proclamation in honor of pickleball and adopted a new parks master plan that mentions pickleball as a sport that the city should try to accommodate at existing parks and recreation facilities. City officials estimate that more than 300 people come to Mitchell Park every week.
Now, Palo Alto is preparing to put this plan into action. Under a proposal recently unveiled by the Community Services Department, three of the seven tennis courts at Mitchell Park would be permanently restriped for pickleball use. To partially offset the loss, the city would consider building a new tennis court at Mitchell Park where a handball wall currently stands. That wall would be relocated under the plan that staff presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission on Dec. 19.
The new pickleball courts would occupy the three tennis courts closest to the Magical Bridge playground, just south of Adobe Creek.
Adam Howard, the city's community-services manager, said staff recognizes that pickleball is a "growing sport" with "an increase of demand in Palo Alto." Under the proposal he presented to the commission, the three tennis courts would be converted into 12 smaller pickleball courts.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has been drawing rave reviews from pickleball users, who currently use the courts on a first-come-first-serve basis. Danaher said it would be "fantastic" to have these courts for exclusive pickleball use and to replace the temporary markings with more visible ones.
Not everyone, however, shares their joy. Members of the Palo Alto Tennis Club, which uses Mitchell Park courts, believe the conversion plan will take away from the space's flexibility, aggravate the park's parking problems and leave tennis aficionados in a bit of a pickle.
Marla Kravatz, president of the tennis club, expressed these concerns at a Dec. 18 meeting with Howard and a few other stakeholders. In an interview with the Weekly, she said she believes the parking issue is getting "short shrift" from staff. The three tennis courts accommodate 12 people when used for doubles tennis, she noted. Twelve pickleball courts, by contrast, could draw 48.
"We'd be adding potentially 36 more people coming to the one area where already the parking is horrendous," Kravatz said.
She also noted that the three courts eyed for conversion are lit courts, which makes them particularly valuable for tennis courts. Pickleball players, meanwhile, are much less likely to play at night, she said.
Kravatz is quick to say that she has absolutely no problem with pickleball, which she describes as a game with "all the fun of tennis without the stress." Tennis players, she said, like the pickleballers and occasionally play the game themselves.
The feeling appears to be mutual, even if the amiable relationship is now being tested by the realities of supply and demand.
"We don't have any arguments or fights with tennis players, but it's just unfortunate because there's too many people who want to play both games," Danaher told the Weekly.
The Parks and Recreation Commission didn't take any votes on the proposed conversion, though members generally supported the plan. Some questioned Howard's assertion that the three courts near the playground are not heavily used by tennis players and requested more data to back it up. Similarly, they requested some data about usage at the handball court that would be relocated.
"We're a bit loosey-goosey on the numbers now," Commissioner Jeff Greenfield said.
He also suggested a potential compromise in which two of the three courts would be restriped for pickleball and the third would remain flexible.
Commission Chair Keith Reckdahl also said the city needs more data but noted that he would "err on the side of putting the pickleball courts in." Commissioner David Moss agreed.
"I get the feeling that the tennis players should be sympathetic, (given) that as people get older, as tennis players get older, a lot of them become pickleball players," Moss said. "So it's for their benefit as well."