Pickleball fans, fearing their courts would be lost in a Newport Beach Tennis Club refresh, asked the city council to reject the proposal to formalize their courts in the plans.

But Robert O Hill, who is the managing member of several project partners, said there was never any intention of eliminating pickleball from the club’s offerings – with the sport’s growing popularity, 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. O 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 and pickleball club from the golf course. There would also be a spa, lap pool, yoga pavilion, pilates studio, fitness center, new locker room and concierge space built.

The private tennis club has been in Newport Beach for 60 years, first as the Irvine Racquet Club and later becoming the Balboa Bay Racquet Club. In 2009, it became the Newport Beach Tennis Club.

The club has an exclusive audience and its tournaments – tennis and pickleball – are broadcast on major networks like ABC and ESPN.

With the backing of the city’s planning commission, O Hill came before city council in September with the proposed improvement. He used his original development plan, approved 10 years ago, with some recent tweaks and was hoping for council approval, but pickleballers have raised concerns that the plans didn’t mention their pitches.

O Hill asked 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 courts by one”.

“There are pickleball courts on the grounds now,” he said, adding that neither the club’s operator, Grandslam, nor his group, the owner, “want to remove them. Our plan was to come back one day and have them officially approved.

“When we arrived at the city council meeting,” O Hill said, “a confused group of pickleball players started waving their paddles.”

The city council, after more discussion last week, decided, 5-2, that everything should be made official and sent the project back to the planning commission to ensure the plans for the project accurately reflect the developer’s intentions. They said the pickleball courts would require separate approvals and may even have to go through the Coast Commission if submitted later, and would also require separate traffic analysis and further review by the Planning Commission.

“Nobody would submit plans for a home improvement showing a garden where a pool will go and just ask the city to ‘trust’ the plans for a pool would be submitted,” Councilman Will O’Neil said after the meeting. “Similarly, we expect people to submit accurate project descriptions. Trust comes with a transparent process, which does not involve ad hoc precedents.

Mayor Kevin Muldoon, who along with Councilor Diane Dixon opposed the project being referred to the Planning Commission, said he believed O Hill would have stayed true to his word.

“They’re a lively club and they’re committed to that,” Muldoon said. “The trend is to have pickleball drawn on the tennis courts. When everything is built, he will put lines on the courts. He already runs the tennis club as a pickleball club with the blessing of the staff.

O Hill, who said he himself enjoys playing pickleball occasionally, is moving forward and has already submitted a new application, including a $13,000 application fee to the city. The bid includes removing the three pickleball courts from the existing bid to make room for the new fitness center and locker room. A center court mini-stadium for tennis equipped for television broadcasts is also part of the plans.

A parking analysis will also be carried out, said O Hill, who believes he will have enough space for what will be needed. Currently, the city requires four parking spaces for each tennis court, but its consultant is studying what should be included for pickleball, he said.

“Pickleball is a very social game. Most tennis players drive separately, but pickleball players come together – often as a family,” he said. “What makes it more social is that young and old are playing. You can compete and have fun.

O Hill said he expects no problems meeting parking requirements and hopes city approvals will be made within the next five months. But, he added, the current project is unlikely to 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 incredible improvement.”