Pickleball is a sport on the rise, a fast-paced game popular with players of all ages, and a catchy name to boot. But when the city of Berkeley updated several old tennis courts to install pickleball courts at Cedar Rose Park in August 2019, the neighborhood quickly learned there’s a noisy downside to the racquet-based sport.
In the year since the pickleball courts were installed, nearby residents say they have been plagued by the sound of the game. Some even describe the noise like “gunshots” whenever the players’ hard rubber balls hit a racquet. The Cedar Rose courts, whose entrance is on Hopkins Street at the Ohlone Greenway, are open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and sit alongside numerous houses and apartments, some of which are just 70 feet from the four courts. Residents say they can’t focus on work or rest, and three have even moved out citing pickleball as the reason, according to the apartments’ owner.
“Twelve hours nonstop,” said Alma Jimenez, who has lived at Hopkins Park Apartments for 31 years. “We don’t even need an alarm, at eight and one second and it starts.”
As the pandemic-related lockdown took hold and more people were forced to stay at home throughout the day, a neighborhood group quickly coalesced around the issue. In late October, Jimenez and 85 of her neighbors sent a petition to the Berkeley City Council, asking that the courts be converted back to tennis courts.
“I think we have a strong cause to ask for this to be gone because they didn’t do any kind of study, they didn’t ask the neighborhood,” said Ingrid Crickmore, who’s lived at Hopkins Park Apartments for decades and has helped organize her neighbors around the pickleball issue.
The group also reached out to their Councilmember, Rashi Kesarwani, who hosted a virtual meeting with 33 of the neighbors about the issue. Kesarwani told Berkeleyside she had never experienced such a high volume of complaints about a single issue before. The neighbors were loud and clear with their “extreme frustration,” both about the noise and their exclusion from the planning process. Part of the problem is that the sport is relatively unknown, she said.
“If I had personally known the nature of the noise associated with pickleball, I would have been very concerned about locating the courts at the Cedar Rose courts,” Kesarwani said. “In hindsight, there was a failure to consult with the neighbors that would be impacted most acutely and a failure, I think, to mitigate the noise to begin with.”
Fans campaigned to create more pickleball courts
For those unfamiliar with pickleball, imagine a cross between tennis and ping pong. Two or four players face each other across a net and hit a firm rubber ball back and forth with hard paddles. At around a quarter the size of a tennis court, the players volley back and forth quickly, which is part of what makes the game so fun, players say.
“I have been a very avid tennis player growing up and all through my young adulthood and not-so-young adulthood and instantly realized this was a hugely fun game and a great social way to have fun with people,” said Bill Powning, 68, of Berkeley.
He and Cathy Taruskin, 68, of El Cerrito, have done a lot of work to increase the number of pickleball courts in the East Bay. After Taruskin discovered the sport six years ago, she became a USA Pickleball Association Ambassador and never looked back.
When Taruskin heard that the tennis courts at Cedar Rose Park were due to be resurfaced, she and Powning asked that the city install pickleball courts instead, and helped raise $2,500 for the cost of new nets and equipment.
“We really have multi-pronged efforts going on in El Cerrito, Albany, Oakland, to get courts, and they’re all at various stages of early, late, middle, given up hope,” she said. Berkeley “came from behind” as a contender, she added.
Some cities, like El Cerrito, have pickleball hours certain days of the week, when players can lay down masking tape on tennis courts to make the smaller pickleball lines. When Taruskin couldn’t find courts to play on nearby, she drove out to Martinez to play on public courts there.
“My original goal was to get enough courts going closer to home,” she said. “In a selfish way, I was trying to fill the gaps in the week.”
Having players travel from all over the bay is part of the problem, said DeAnn Horne, 71, a Hopkins Park resident of 31 years. She’s a nurse and is deeply concerned at the crowds she’s seen in the courts — up to 16 people playing at once, and often with lines of players waiting on the sidelines, Horne said. Although park rules require players to wear a mask, Horne frequently sees people playing maskless, even after she asks them to put on a mask, she said. Several have told her to move if she’s unhappy.
“We’ve done a really good job of not having a surge here, and these people are coming from everywhere and not wearing masks,” Horne said. “They’re crazed.”
Neither Taruskin nor Powning have any authority to enforce rules among players, but they do try to keep relations between players and neighbors friendly. When Taruskin became aware that pickleball players were parking in the apartment residents’ spots, she wrote a note of apology to the resident and shared her contact information in case of future issues. She’s surprised at the noise complaints and petition to remove the courts.
“We want people to like us. We had no idea there was this group of neighbors that were upset,” Taruskin said. “Because I’m a player, it’s almost music to my ears because I associate it with my having a good time.”
“I recognize that pickleball creates more sound than tennis does, or basketball,” Powning said. He thinks the solution is to make more permanent pickleball courts to relieve pressure on the Cedar Rose location. “If there’s only one place to play, it’s going to be busier at that place,” he said.
Neither Taruskin nor Powning live close to public parks, they said. “It’s hard to say” if she’d like to live as close to a pickleball court as the Hopkins Parks neighbors now are, Taruskin said.
“There are a lot of advantages to living near a park, and some disadvantages,” Powning said.
Noise abatement measures implemented
After speaking with City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley and Parks Director Scott Ferris, Kesarwani sent an email update to the neighbors to say that noise abatement measures would be implemented. This included the installation of acoustic-dampening plastic sheets on three of the four walls of the courts within six weeks, and requiring that players use a specific type of noise-mitigating paddles. Long term Kesarwani believes it would be best to relocate the courts, she told Berkeleyside, but she isn’t sure how long that would take.
Horne isn’t happy with this middle-ground measure, however. She spoke with Ferris on the phone to reiterate that the neighbors are asking for the pickleball courts to close immediately until they can find a solution, and for the courts to eventually be converted back to tennis courts. She didn’t have much success, she said.
“He’s got his agenda and it’s not going to bend,” Horne said.
“That’s not what our petition was asking,” Jimenez added. “We’re specifically asking, in a nice way, to put our tennis court back.”
Berkeleyside reached out to the Parks Department multiple times but did not hear back before publication.
Game noise an issue for the apartments’ owner
The courts have become an issue for the apartments’ owner as well. Randall Berger has owned the 82 units at Hopkins Park Apartments (at 1290 Hopkins St.) since 1984, the same year that the tennis courts were installed alongside the Ohlone Trail. Like Kesarwani, he’s never seen this kind of unified action from his tenants.
“In 36 years I have never heard a single complaint about the tennis courts,” Berger said. But in the year since the courts were repurposed for pickleball players, “we’ve had three people move out, 100% because of the pickleball.”
In conversations with other property managers about the issue, Berger learned that most pickleball courts are 300-500 feet away from residential properties, and if they’re much closer, they have strictly limited hours. (Consulting firm Spendiarian & Willis, one of whose specialties is environmental acoustics, recommends pickleball courts be located within 500 to 600 feet of residential properties.) At the same time, he’s unsure of what his role in the conflict is beyond supporting his tenants.
“I don’t know if I should be talking to legal counsel, I don’t know if we should continue going to city council and do it that way,” Berger said. “I don’t want [the residents] to be unhappy, but it’s not something that we did.”
While frustration has mounted among the neighbors, they’re make it clear that their anger is with the city rather than the players.
“We have nothing against the sport, we have nothing against the people who play the sport, but we feel that it’s in the wrong place,” Jimenez said. “There are wants and needs. We need our peace and quiet. They want to play pickleball.”