Neighbors say a potential plan to build tennis courts at Moellering Field breaks a district promise to maintain open space there. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A new cost analysis has thrown a wrench in a plan to return tennis courts to Berkeley High School after 16 years, and an alternative option faces community opposition.

Tennis players and supporters crowded into the Berkeley School Board meeting on Sept. 27, telling the board their patience had been tested. Many urged the school board to figure out how to finance costly tennis courts on Milvia Street, and others encouraged construction on Moellering Field, even though some believe building there would break a previous promise to neighbors.

A good number said they would simply be happy to have their own tennis courts anywhere, as long as BHS players could stop schlepping to the courts at King Middle School, about a mile away, where they have played for years. There are no restrooms at the site.

“I’ve dealt with missing class due to getting to our home courts and changing to our uniform,” said freshman Andrea Morales at the meeting.

She and her teammates thought they were on track to get their courts back when, in January, Berkeley Unified reallocated the remaining revenue from the 2010 Measure I, which supports facilities construction and maintenance. The district allotted around $5 million to convert the current staff parking lot on Milvia, across the street from Berkeley High, into a two-story parking structure with five tennis courts on top. The same site housed the high school’s tennis courts for decades until the parking lot was built as an emergency measure in 2001.

Recently, however, the district determined that the Milvia project, which would add additional needed staff parking spaces, would cost closer to $11 million, more than double the earmarked amount. If the district went forward with the plan, it would be wise to wait until the potential passage of a new bond measure in 2020, BUSD facilities director Tim White said.

The Berkeley High boys tennis team won the league championship in spring 2017. The team currently plays and practices at King Middle School. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Staff members are turning their attention back to a proposal crafted by advocates for the tennis teams to build five courts and a restroom on Moellering Field, at Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Derby Street. That project, according to staff, would cost only $3 million and take one year, as opposed to 18 months, to build. The plan would add five courts on what is now open field space and the basketball court, keeping the baseball field intact. However, the proposed design would make it impossible to play tennis and basketball at the same time. Students from the neighboring Berkeley Technology Academy currently use the basketball court often.

By approving the Derby Street option, the board would also be backtracking on a vow to keep part of the space undeveloped and open to the community, say some neighbors. What is more, according to neighbors who spoke at the School Board meeting, the district has not entirely honored that promise so far either, keeping the gate to the open area locked more often than it should. White agreed that the space has not always been made available to the public.

“Let no one argue this is an underutilized resource. The community was never given a chance,” said one neighbor. “We supported the field under assurances from the district that the community would retain access for multi-purpose use.”

The proposal to build courts at Moellering Field “flies in the face of direly impacted field space in Berkeley,” said a parent and volunteer coach for the BHS ultimate frisbee team, which uses the open space. The project has the “unfortunate characteristic of pitting Berkeley High sports teams against each other, and pitting them against the community,” he said.

Another speaker, however, questioned whether “there is something so sacred about that small part of the field and so offensive about building tennis courts on school district property” that would cause the district to squander “millions of dollars of taxpayer money” and time pursuing the Milvia option instead.

A Miliva Street staff parking lot may be turned into a parking structure with courts on top, but the plan would cost $11M, more than the $5M the district has allocated Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Addressing the School Board, Berkeley High tennis players said they would raise funds to help make Moellering Field more like a park and accessible to the public, if courts were built there. But they said they would be happy with courts on Milvia as well, if it meant they no longer had to advocate for themselves.

“Each year it’s practice, play, and attend a school board meeting,” said senior Cameron Henritzy. “We have done what we can.”

Their lack of home courts has not stopped the players from achieving success. In spring 2017, the boys team was co-champion, along with Piedmont High, of the West Alameda County Conference. The team ended the season with a strong 14-3 record.

Tennis has not been offered as a P.E. class at Berkeley High since the courts were replaced with the parking lot, however.

The School Board did not make a decision about the new courts at the September meeting, and will continue to consider Measure I projects at an upcoming meeting. Board members said they empathize with the tennis players, but see no ideal solution.

“I’m going to be honest, I feel like I should have an answer by now,” said Judy Appel. “I support having courts, I’m just trying to figure out the best way to do that.” She said a decision to pursue construction on Moellering Field would have to include a community input process.

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she supports the teams but asked why the board was singling out the tennis court project.

“I think our bigger discussion is how this all fits in the puzzle of everything we have under Measure I,” she said.

While discussions occur, community members are continuing their advocacy and support for the tennis teams.

The Berkeley Tennis Club Foundation is hosting a movie screening and panel discussion to benefit Friends of Berkeley High Tennis on Sunday at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. The film, “Battle of the Sexes,” tells the story of the 1973 match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King reportedly played often at the Berkeley Tennis Club at the time. A panel discussion on sports and gender will follow the screening.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...