It’s been decades since Ford’s historic Richmond Tank Depot closed up shop in 1956. These days, what was once the largest assembly plant on the West Coast now hosts myriad art installations, beer festivals, corporate events, lavish weddings and other “pop-up” community affairs right off the city’s industrial shoreline.
But the 45,000-square-foot Craneway Pavilion largely sits vacant, behind lofty glass and brick walls that reflect the sweeping views — from the Berkeley hills, across the Bay Bridge and over to Marin County.
Some local pickleball players, entrepreneurs and investors think the sport’s plastic “pops” and “thwacks” could help inject life back in and around the Craneway. But that proposal appears to be stuck in a political pickle.
State land stewards and city officials last week denied the pickleball developer’s permit application, arguing that the proposed business doesn’t have a strong connection to Richmond’s waterfront and doesn’t benefit the general public.
Now, the developers behind the pickleball plans are pushing back, asking regulators to explain why a pickleball club at Craneway Pavilion would be considered less connected to Richmond’s waterfront than other private, paid and invite-only events. Was this a legitimate move by regulators, or backlash against the rapidly growing but often controversial sport of pickleball?
The PB Development Group — led by Rachel Hong, a Bay Area native and former professional tennis player, and her sons, Chris and Cooper Hagmaier — wants to transform the former auto factory into a pickleball club, complete with 16 courts, a fitness lounge and pro shop. While originally proposed as a private club, the Newport Beach-based group has since assured officials that the facility will be open to both paid members and the general public alike.
Hong, who also helped found the Women’s International Pickleball Association, said she consciously scoured the country for markets that lacked enough courts to equitably support local players. Craneway Pavilion immediately caught her attention, she said, with bonus points for not being near residential communities that have increasingly complained that pickleball games are too noisy.
“When I first saw that gorgeous building, I knew (our pickleball) project was what the property needed to draw people to the community from places like San Francisco, Marin and Alameda,” Hong said. “We’re just trying to stimulate the community and make it better. It’s a ghost town there now, so why not use the fastest growing social sport to attract people there?”
The Craneway Pavilion is seen from this drone view along Harbor Way South in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
The land-use requirements cited by officials were outlined in early-2000s contracts that established the land within the public trust. In a July letter, the State Lands Commission advised Richmond officials that activities at the Craneway “should” have a connection to the water, increase the public’s enjoyment of the waterfront, serve a statewide public interest beyond municipal needs and be open to all rather than be controlled by private parties.
Four days later, Lina Velasco, Richmond’s director of community development, subsequently informed the PB Development Group that the city would not be able to approve the proposed use and requested that their application be completely withdrawn “at this juncture.”
But Hong is adamant that their proposal does check all the legal boxes to operate on the waterfront and in the process of resubmitting clarified paperwork about the project, which she hopes will be sorted before the Craneway’s events cease in December.
“I’ll take responsibility for not highlighting how waterfront access is a huge component, but we’re clarifying how we believe we fit into and enhance all of those points,” Hong said. “We would not have invested this much money if we didn’t have the understanding that it would be approved. I just don’t understand how they can deny it.”
Reid Boggiano, the commission’s granted lands program manager, said even when a project checks off all the legal boxes, rejection is still within a city’s prerogative.
Darlene Vendegna — a self-described Pickleball evangelist and ambassador who estimates she’s taught more than 2,500 East Bay residents to play the sport — said the pushback about ties to Richmond’s waterfront and a lack of connections to the wider Bay Area is “nonsense.” She said she fields dozens of daily calls and emails about a dearth of local spaces offering regular league play, coaching clinics, indoor courts during inclement weather.
“That is unheard of in the entire Bay Area and will make Richmond an absolute destination,” Vendegna, who helps organize a local cult-like following online, wrote in an email. “The geographic location is perfectly situated to allow access from parts of the Bay that are currently pickleball deserts but contain hundreds of pickleball players. The few places there are to play are always overwhelmed.”
Pickleball instructor Darlene Vendegna, center, works with Jan Busch, left, and Barbara Beery, right, during a beginner’s clinic at Bushrod Park in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. The USA Pickleball Ambassador and Pickleball Certified Coach will be inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for her work with the sport. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Chris Hagmaier, Hong’s son, agreed, arguing that their club, if built, would preserve the building’s industrial vibe and sustain a number of community events, but ultimately expand the number of people who actually know that the Craneway Pavilion exists.
“We get that this place is sentimental for a lot of people, but we think more people are going to come to the waterfront as a result of this,” Hagmaier said. “Right now, it’s a couple thousand people going there every year, but there’s going to be hundreds of people in there every single day once the pickleball club opens up.”
If places like the waterfront Oracle Park — where the Giants hit home runs out to fans in kayaks bobbing in the Bay and even hosted its own pickleball tournament in July — can succeed, he said the PB Development Groups’s could, too — “just without blasting pickleballs out into the water, hopefully.”