Robb Field Pickleball FAQ
Updated: May 14
This post will cover the most common questions we have received about the proposal.
(Update: A few new questions have been added in 2022)
Would you do this as a non-profit, or are you insistent on being a for-profit?
We applied as a non-profit. This has never been about money for us. We wish to do this in the best way for the City and community.
Why not go through 'the process' and build our own pickleball facility?
San Diego City has limits on the amount of concrete that can be placed in public parks, and we are at that limit (per a discussion with the Parks Director). A few acres exist as a buffer, but other projects are well before us in line. It will take at least 5-10 years before that might change, with no guarantees. We cannot wait that long, as the problem has been compounding for some five years already. We have an imminent need for pickleball courts, now. We’ve been at this for over four years and the City has made no tangible progress at the construction of a new facility. We must share finite space. There is no getting around it.
Why does sharing space make sense for both tennis and pickleball?
There are 37 tennis courts combined between Robb Field and Barnes Tennis Center, and they are located 600 feet apart. On average, only 9 of those 37 tennis courts, or 24%, are being utilized at any given time. We are asking to share 6 or 12 of those tennis courts, repurpose them to dedicated pickleball courts, and preserve the remaining 25-31 for tennis only. We have 4,000 local residents on a petition, 11,000 letters of support, and over 60 local businesses that are within one mile of Robb Field. Our proposal would allow Barnes to flourish, filling up more of its courts and become a bustling hub for tennis, and would also allow Robb Field to address San Diego's pickleball needs.
What about all the tennis tournaments at Barnes recently scheduled for this year?
Owners of tennis clubs have told us that when a tennis club is not doing well, it places tournaments on its calendar to attract the interest of out-of-town players. Having one or two big tournaments a year is fine. But dozens of tournaments or more a year proves the point that Barnes is not serving the local community. If it was being used by local residents, they shouldn't and couldn't run all the tournaments. We have been told by tennis club owners that this is akin to an admission that the local community is not using the space. Thus, change is necessary.
Is sharing a bad idea?
The status quo is unacceptable. We can serve the community better if we are willing to share finite public concrete at our local Parks. Sharing is not a dirty word! Is it too much to ask some tennis players to play across the street at Barnes, which is much nicer? It is public space on zero-rent or rent-free City property. We all have a right to it! There is a solution here, somewhere. The tennis folks at Robb will not return our phone calls and emails ever since we began. Indirectly we heard they think pickleball cheapens tennis. Tennis has said if any courts are ever repurposed to pickleball, San Diego will quickly lose all tennis courts and won’t have anything in southern California. We think that is a bit extreme, but that is what they have been communicating via email to their members. They are protecting what they consider to be their turf. We feel it is a privilege and not a right to use public Park space. And we aim to do it and serve roughly 3,000 pickleball folks a week, if room is made for us. If sharing is a priority to serve more local residents, then we can succeed. And tennis can continue to serve the same 300 folks per week it does now on the remaining courts.
What would it actually take for this proposal to be approved?
The District 2 (Campbell) office has told us they will formally recommend the proposal to Parks and Recreation if we can prove local support. We would also need a recommendation from several committees, all of which we are in touch with and presenting to between now and March. One is already on board. We believe District 2 will be obligated to formally recommend the proposal to Parks if we can get thousands of emails into their office, as well as the Mayor's. The campaign is officially underway! Use link below to voice your support.
Parks and Recreation, District 2, and the Mayor's office have all indicated their general concurrence with the proposal, pending demonstration of support at the local level.
Click here for a pre-filled email of support: www.tinyurl.com/pickleballsdcampaign.
Why do you believe the current tennis club at Robb Field is failing?
The most recent public Board Minutes for Robb Field tennis stated (on their website as recent as 1/28/22) that they have 155 current paid members, but need 300 to remain viable (that means just paying their taxes and covering utilities and basic operations). They are failing by their own admission. Their most recent public Form 990 showed revenue of barely over $100 per day combined for all 12 courts. We have also personally audited the facility hundreds of times over the past five years at every combination of day and time. We are prepared to prove this to the City if need be.
How can we know that pickleball won't fail also?
All we can do right now is prove local support, which we have done convincingly with the newsletter list, social media, and the press. If the crowds at existing pickleball courts are any indication, the demand vastly exceeds the supply. We will quell the City's concerns by offering stipulations regarding turnout. We would pay to re-convert the space back to tennis if we fail to meet these standards. We don't believe there would ever be less pickleball traffic than the current tennis, though. We may 10x their current turnout. We would be abjectly disappointed in ourselves if we 'only' did 5x better than the current tenant.
Why not sprinkle a court or two at various parks around town?
The City's idea is to put 1-2 courts at 10-15 parks all around the County. While this won't harm the sport, it will not further the goals of structure and vibe. You wouldn't sprinkle individual bowling lanes around town, rather you would build a bowling alley. Pickleball needs contiguous courts for camaraderie and breadth of offerings. It is a social, structured sport. This project is solely focused on bringing a full facility to San Diego. The City can and should still sprinkle some courts all around the County too, but we are not given a say in any of that. The City also does not appear to be in any rush to do so, unfortunately.
Will this negatively affect OB and Robb Field with traffic congestion?
Robb Field can accommodate the influx of pickleball players better than anywhere else we have surveyed. All other viable park spaces are too small, especially when factoring in parking. There is actually an excess of parking at Robb beyond the legal requirement, which is rare. The park's entrance is a right turn off a roundabout, so traffic flows well. Bacon Street is also sufficiently long inside the park, so players can queue and exit without clogging Point Loma Blvd. The River Bikeway also adds a convenient way to enter the park without a car.
As far as the influx of players, it's better for the park to be crowded with happy local residents, rather than empty. The park is designed to accommodate way more people than it does. We will have to be flexible at times no doubt. But let's just make good use of the space first, and go from there. OB residents so far have thoroughly supported this.
Why not try for fewer courts in the hopes of securing approval easier?
After hundreds of meetings and correspondences with city officials, our conclusion is that approval hinges almost solely on proof of local support. We do not sense that the number 36 is too ambitious or a dealbreaker. In fact, it is a compromise down from an original proposal to build 65. The City government has acknowledged that the idea is sound and they agree with our sentiment, but warned that there's just a lot of hoops to jump through. The current proposal of 36 has never been shot down or labeled a non-starter by any city official, rather only been pushed further along the pipeline. Vying for fewer courts wouldn't take any less time with the City. If we are going to try at all, we will try for our best outcome.
Is a dedicated facility even necessary? What about joint-use?
Tennis facilities want us out of their hair. Pickleball needs its own separate facilities. It is simply time. The current tenant pays ~$600 per year to lease the tennis space. They and other municipal tennis clubs are not motivated to adapt with the times. There is little incentive for them to offer pickleball, and so they don't. Our proposal optimizes the use of limited resources, and in doing so can ultimately satisfy both sides. We can accomplish this proposal while keeping the local tennis activity at the same level as before. Meanwhile, thousands more pickleball players will finally have a home. We have witnessed numerous negative interactions at multi-purpose venues, where pickleball players use temporary taped lines and portable nets, and where basketball and tennis players have bullied them off the courts or simply complained. A dedicated pickleball facility is in all sports' best interest. San Diego is 5-10 years late in permitting a dedicated facility, but we can quickly fix that.
What sort of amenities and structured programs will be offered?
A 36-court facility could allow for all types of organized sessions, and we truly intend to offer a wide variety: Beginner classes, private and group lessons, ladders and leagues of all tiers with rating system and curation, social events on holidays, pro exhibitions, corporate or work events, full-scale national-level tournaments, local mixers and round robins, and even things like Ladies' Night and true Open Play. We would also offer programs tailored specifically for youth (after-school and PE programs in conjunction with local districts), adaptive sessions for handicapped, senior citizens, veterans, and free sessions for the underprivileged.
It will go so far beyond what any other municipal entity offers. We envision a full-fledged social hub for local residents. As far as amenities, we will upgrade the bathrooms, add showers, improve the clubhouse, full replacement of brand-new fencing, signage, and of course painted lines. Tables, chairs, umbrellas, benches. It will be a pleasure to visit and see.
Who will pay for the project?
The proposal in its current form can and will be fully funded upfront by the two of us who have embarked on this project. We have estimates for every component of construction, and funds can be in escrow tomorrow if the City gave the green light. Zero taxpayer money is required or even requested. A special-use permit from the City would allow the facility to come to fruition and bypass the need to pay 20-40 million dollars for the land itself. Instead we would simply convert the existing tennis venue and pay a long-term lease, which, while still very expensive, is much more economical than building from scratch on private land.
The formal proposal in its current form calls for a ~2.5 million dollar investment over the course of the next ~5 years. A big chunk of that will be upfront, the rest as ongoing investment to expand and improve the facility, such as the clubhouse and a proposed viewing deck. These upgrades would roll out as fast as the City is willing to approve them.
The City has made it clear they will not fund anything remotely resembling a dedicated pickleball facility. The City government on its own cannot be counted on to ever make this happen. By offering to fund the project (which was not our original plan and is unheard of for a municipal project of this nature) we force the City to consider the project's intrinsic merits. They cannot brush it off on budgetary grounds, since the proposal requires zero funding.
Why is Robb Field an ideal location?
Local players are aware of the many great places to play in North County. But much of the city's population resides south of the 56, even south of the 8. Robb Field being right off the 8 and not far from the 5 is an accessible location for anyone in Central San Diego. It is also far enough from residencies to avoid light and noise permit issues and not bother anyone nearby. There would be a bevy of legal complications at any other candidate location, some of which we were told by the City could take several years to secure approval.
Robb Field is a unicorn: City-owned, ample parking, right off two freeways, a good north/south compromise, far removed from housing, with the skeleton of a tennis facility pre-constructed and ready to convert. We spent months analyzing all viable city parks. There are other candidate spots, but Robb Field is the best option and it's not even particularly close.
Will it be free to use?
No, there will be a fee to play. The cost to play will be half that of the current tennis facility. This will not be a private facility, open only to those who pay a membership. The facility will be open to the public for daily use, as well as possibly a rate for unlimited play. Balls and paddles will be provided to anyone who needs them. Yes, balls will be included. The City will determine and ensure fair rates. There will also be free sessions for those who are unable to pay. All of these stipulations will be guaranteed in the special-use permit.
Is this philanthropy?
Yes and no. We have been at this for four years and full-time for almost 1.5, without pay of any kind. Why? Because we know it's the right thing for the City to do. We also love the community of local players. The City has made it clear that they will not fund such a project nor be willing to manage one. Due to this, we developed a willingness to fund the project so that it may still be considered. We have committed our lives to achieving this for San Diego.
When the facility is approved, revenue will go in many directions: Some will reimburse construction costs (which may take years), a share will be commanded by the City, some will go towards maintenance, some will cover the special-use permit and lease, some will pay employee wages, some will be allotted to charitable causes, and a majority will be invested for expansion and improvements. There will be taxes and legal expenses. We would augur an income after all aforementioned items are attended to. We don't view this as a job (though we treat it like one). We view this as a cause first and foremost.
Why is this a for-profit? Can it be a non-profit?
We researched these questions and discussed with legal counsel several months ago and seriously considered the non-profit approach. However, we are not independently wealthy. We cannot donate the money, as the non-profit model generally requires. This investment of capital, up to $2.5 million, is essentially our entire life savings. We must be allowed to earn those funds back. A non-profit entity would not be able to guarantee that we could get recompensed over an acceptable amount of time. The purpose of a non-profit is to fund such a facility through donations, as opposed to an investment (the way we have chosen).
If the City decides to fund the facility, we would consider managing it as a nonprofit, but that feels unlikely as the City said it would take 'many years, if ever' to come to fruition. If an individual steps forward to donate the money, of course we would consider running the organization using the nonprofit approach. But we surveyed players and supporters, and did not find it feasible to raise this amount of funding as pure donations in reasonable time. There are other limitations as well, some regarding a board of directors, length of terms we could serve, and myriad other details that were just not feasible options for us when putting our life savings at risk.
For these reasons, both speed of raising funds and the ability to earn it back, we are choosing to operate on a for-profit model. Of course we hope to earn our investment back and make some profit too, but even if successful that will likely take years. And it is not guaranteed. This is the only way we could offer the proposal in its current form, which we are committed to making work.
Would for-profit status complicate the process and increase the time until approval?
This was the City’s initial stance, which we now know is inaccurate. After they consulted their legal counsel, the City acknowledged that a for-profit entity would actually not be a problem. We further found that there are a significant number of private entities operating on City-owned property that are for-profit. It is quite common. SeaWorld is a prime example, which we initially pointed out. But there are many hundreds more. Almost all of the shops in Seaport Village are for-profit on City land. The gift shop on the Ocean Beach Pier is for-profit on City land. All of the hotels around Mission Bay (Hilton, Catamaran) are for-profit and on City land. There are some businesses within Balboa Park that are for-profit, including a Verizon store, located on City-owned land with a lease.
The City has entered into many hundreds if not thousands of for-profit leases and non-profit leases in the past, and we are in the process of obtaining a full list of all of them via public record. There is no reason why the proposed structure could not be approved expeditiously if the community supports it and the City agrees to not block it. We are gathering examples of City leases to educate ourselves further on the issue. It is not currently viewed as a hurdle. The City said it is not a problem, or else we wouldn't do it.
Is there available space for the displaced tennis players at another facility?
Barnes Tennis Center is 600 feet away and could easily accommodate the affected tennis players. Barnes would welcome them with open arms. Barnes has 25 courts, and on most days and times up to 20 are vacant. We would ensure with certainty that players can relocate across the street for the same price as they currently pay at Robb.
Barnes invested five-million dollars to upgrade their facilities. It is a beautiful, world-class tennis venue that any tennis player would be thrilled to call home. We would love to see local tennis players utilizing Barnes as much as possible. How many courts should San Diego have? 50,000 people in San Diego have played pickleball. If we had the same amount of courts per capita as Seattle, for example, we would have almost 500. The City of San Diego has ZERO dedicated public courts at its public parks. Granted, there are some courts to be found at country clubs, hotels, and within gated communities. But these venues present access barriers to the typical pickleball player. San Diego with its weather and active population should have upwards of 1,000 public courts. The sport is growing over 20% yearly as well, so San Diego needs to add hundreds more each year just to keep pace with demand. We would build up to 100 if the City permitted, which would still be a drop in the bucket, but 36 is a valiant start.
Who will manage the facility? The two of us, along with copious help, will oversee daily operations and offerings. There will be a lot of hands on deck. Our goal will be for the City to feel that the facility is totally in check, being managed much better than they could ever hope to do themselves. The City won't need to do a thing if they don't want to. Of course, out of respect we would run major decisions by the City, and they are free to veto anything they hate. But it won't be imperative for them to get involved unless they wish. We have had years to brainstorm the scheduling and functionality, and have much of the roadmap planned out already. We are organized and prepared to do this. Folks can rest assured we will be determined to do a good job from day one. We will be motivated to keep players happy.
Why should the City of San Diego want this? Pickleball is inclusive. It gets people of all ages and walks of life enjoying a recreational activity together. In short, this will make a lot of people very happy. We will grow the sport at the youth level. We will also offer something great for the senior community. Pickleball is excellent exercise, a great social outlet, and a mental health resource for local residents. Any community would benefit from this. San Diego would be proud to have this. City officials should love this proposal: A fresh idea coming out of a pandemic, a time when government budgets are tight and yet citizens' physical and mental health are of utmost importance. The proposed facility could host national-level tournaments several times per year, as well as thousands of tourists year-round. It would direct untold millions of dollars to nearby hotels and restaurants annually. Local small businesses are in overwhelming support of this. It would also lead to job creation or at least general bolstering of commerce pertaining to: Construction, development, ongoing maintenance, security, instruction, hospitality, and the portion of revenue directed back towards park renovations. It would be a huge boon to OB and Point Loma, the Mission Bay area, and even the Gaslamp District.
Why not just buy land and do this without the City? Even if we had the spare 20-40 million needed to buy the land, it would not make financial sense. This is why you have not seen the private sector build a pickleball venue in San Diego. Real estate is cost prohibitive. Just converting the courts at Robb Field will cost an exorbitant amount of money. We have looked at leasing commercial real estate, but the same themes arise. Our goal is to create a facility that is affordable and open to the public. Partnering with the City on a special-use permit is the only realistic path forward.
-Mike Shinzaki and Stefan Boyland