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Richmond council says ‘our hands are tied’ over pickleball at historic Craneway Pavilion


Richmond council says 'our hands are tied' over pickleball at historic Craneway Pavilion

RICHMOND — Days after Richmond residents protested the grand opening of pickleball courts at the privately-operated Craneway Pavilion, city officials say there’s little they can do to stop it because of a bad deal signed two decades ago.

Pickleball courts now cover much of the historic structure’s 45,000-square-foot indoor space, completing the vision Orton Development, the lease holder, and its partner PB Development had for the building. Hundreds of pickleball enthusiasts flocked to the community space this past weekend for a grand opening event featuring hours of free lessons, play and food and drinks provided by an adjoining restaurant.

“I don’t think you really understand how much pickleball is going to take over. It’s coming and people really enjoy it,” said Kim Sterner, a Craneway employee who volunteered during the grand opening and argued the courts will draw visitors from beyond the Bay Area. “I think it’s a great community resource and I’m glad it’s there.”

They were also met with a small protest led by Richmond residents concerned the community events like arts and crafts shows, car shows, roller derby, the Rosie the Riveter festival and Fourth of July celebrations will no longer have a home there.

Residents have been expressing those concerns on social media platforms since Orton Development first proposed building the courts last July. The most recent version of that proposal called for a 75,129-square-foot restaurant with a game area that would take up 27.5% of the space, most of it dedicated to the pickleball courts but ping pong, cornhole, chess and checkers may also be offered.

After months of speculation by the public and silence from city officials, a report was presented to the City Council on Tuesday. It detailed the history of the site, how the current lease agreement came to be and what uses have occupied the event space over the past several decades.

A key takeaway, though, was that the city has little say over how the building is used.

When Richmond City Council approved a deal with Orton Development in 2004, the lease agreement required the firm only pay $1 a year in rent. The terms of the lease contained another oddity — for each year that passed, another year was added to the lease’s lifespan.

In exchange, Orton agreed to spend millions of dollars restoring the former Ford plant that was converted during World War II to assemble military vehicles. The agreement did not stipulate any expectations that the venue be opened to the public for free events.

“There’s very little we can do when we inherit agreements that are, quite frankly poor, ill-conceived, terribly ill-conceived,” said Councilmember Doria Robinson, before listing by name each councilmember who approved the 2004 lease agreement. “None of the people up here agreed to that lease but we’re stuck with it.”

Orton Development prepaid the 55-year lease upfront, spending $55, another option under the terms of the deal. On Tuesday, Richmond City Attorney Dave Aleshire called into question the legality of the agreement, noting that at the time the state limited public leases to no more than 55 years.

“If read literally, the contract goes forever at a dollar a year,” Aleshire said. “I think the chances of not being able to cut off the tail on that thing are pretty low. I can’t see how a judge would end up saying that the literal terms of this agreement are not violative of public policy.”

Whether or not pickleball is a permitted use in the building is also up for debate. Under an agreement between the city and State Lands Commission, which co-governs oversight of the property, the site can be used for overnight accommodations, restaurants and cafes, water-related industry, museums regarding waterfront history, visitor-serving retail, boating and ferry service.

The State Lands Commission, weighing in on the project proposal in a letter last July, disputed that pickleball falls within permitted uses, but the developer says the only changes are to “decor” and “theme,” which is allowed. As of last week, the commission said it still had not provided approval for pickleball at the Craneway.

How much of the building can be built out with pickleball courts is also remains question. City zoning allows for a business to use up to 33% of its floor plan for an accessory use. Orton Development asserts that, under those guidelines, the 20,700 square feet currently dedicated to gaming falls under the city’s limit after accounting for indoor and outdoor space. Aleshire said outdoor square footage should not be included in calculations, limiting gaming to no more than 15,000 square feet.

The city is now again seeking the State Lands Commission’s input on the matter. A response is expected within a week or two, Aleshire estimated.

Ultimately though, opponents of the current pickleball courts argue the issue isn’t actually about pickleball but is more about a private business flouting state and city guidelines.

Aleshire cautioned the council from taking too strong of a stance on the matter until he has had the chance to work with Orton on more long-term solutions, both on the terms of the lease and the use of the event space. No representatives from Orton attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Aleshire noted Orton Development did not need to seek a building permit from the city to install the changes it made, but said the development firm has signaled a willingness to work with the city on a project that better balances community interests. Councilmembers and critics say they’ll need to see that in writing.

“We want our community to be there,” Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin said. “I do think it’s important that we try and resolve this in as expeditious a way as possible and in a way that provides the community with the Craneway that we’ve come to love and appreciate over the years.”

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