The San Luis Obispo City Council received an overwhelming wave of community concerns for the installation of pickleball courts at Mitchell Park, though ultimately deciding to still move forward with the development.
City Council voted 4-0 on Tuesday, Feb. 2 to move forward with creating two pickleball courts at Mitchell Park, a historic location downtown marked by the city’s gazebo. Councilmember Carlyn Christianson recused herself from the vote due to living in close proximity to the park.
Now, city staff is authorized to begin planning, designing and receiving additional public input for the pickleball project. However, the decision came after multiple public comments from residents rallying both for and against the development.
Unhoused or unsheltered residents
Some expressed concern that the park development will diminish the amount of space available to unsheltered residents instead of addressing the growing homeless population with needed services. Michelle Mansker, who said she is an advocate for the unhoused community, said that the development seemed like “a way to maybe force the unhoused community members out of Mitchell Park.”
Community Services Assistant City Manager Shelly Stanwyck said that adding more activity to the park will deter “negative activities” that occur there, noting that City Council has received multiple emails from parents who are concerned that their children cannot use the Mitchell Park playground due to an unsafe environment. However, Stanwyck said this is associated with criminal and illicit acts, not housing status.
Free speech events
SLO Street Medics, a group of local volunteers trained in first-aid response, provided a template message prior to the meeting to encourage comments against the pickleball courts. The organization said that the courts may interfere with the park’s open space, which is the “de-facto gathering site for freedom of speech in SLO.”
As the site of several past gatherings, rallies and free speech events, the group questioned the motives behind using Mitchell Park specifically.
“Is it possible that the city is interested in curtailing these events by paving the park for a very select few who would use the pickleball court?” SLO Street Medics said in an Instagram post.
The group said that there is already an approved design for the courts, but Parks and Recreation Director Greg Avakian said that only later on in the process will staff come back to the council for design approval.
The courts will likely be installed on the Pismo Street side, adjacent to the restrooms and closer to the Senior Center. Avakian said the courts will be approximately half the size of a tennis court, without altering the configuration of the park layout.
“We are very proud of the gazebo and the fact that that is a downtown neighborhood park that does provide a social gathering place for our community,” Avakian said.
SLO Street Medics have since deleted their Instagram posts about the pickleball courts.
San Luis Obispo resident Kevin Foote questioned whether the courts will be a public health concern after hearing that about 50 people gathered at French Park — where there are currently seven pickleball courts — throughout the day.
“If you have large groups of people walking from their apartments and their rentals and around town to go play and they’re passing by our Senior Center, is it something where the layout of it might actually funnel people in a way that is not going to condone or promote safe outdoor use?” Foote asked the staff.
Avakian said there’s a nine to 12-month construction process, after which hopefully will be safer to gather. He added that some practices are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, using hand sanitizer, not sharing equipment and wiping off the balls during play. While pickleball games typically take 30 minutes to an hour for each rotation, Avakian said the games see a high rate of turnovers.
Mitchell Park’s historical significance
For resident John Ashbaugh, the pickleball courts would “disturb the historic integrity” of Mitchell Park, though Avakian said the courts would not impact the heritage trees and historical presence of the park.
Some residents support the move, saying pickleball will help reinvigorate the location.
Resident Bonnie Grouard, a pickleball player, owns a home on Osos Road near the park that is over 100 years old.
“I appreciate the historical significance of Mitchell Park,” Grouard said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want to bring it back alive. I’d really like to see that happen at Mitchell Park.”
Members of Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO called in earlier in the meeting to oppose the pickleball court development. They said it is “not a good use of our funds” during the pandemic, and instead, they advocated for greater investment in housing, rent relief and homelessness services.
Staff clarified during the meeting that funding for the pickleball courts will not be coming out of the City’s General Fund but rather grants that can only be used for parks.
State funding from a California parks grant covers about 85% of the project, and the remaining $32,000 will come from Quimby Act funds. Quimby Act funding is used specifically to provide recreational amenities in subdivisions of new neighborhood developments.
“As we approve more density in the downtown, there is a need for more recreation – especially if we’re talking about multifamily or apartment type style housing where people don’t have backyards,” Councilmember Jan Marx said. “And it’s my understanding that there is a link between approval of these different projects and provision of recreational opportunities under the Quimby Act.”
The Mitchell Park development comes after the Parks and Recreation Committee conducted a needs assessment survey in 2018. Avakian said Mitchell Park scored high for needing more activity-based recreation. The park is located at the intersection of businesses, neighborhoods and the Senior Center – plus qualifies to receive funding – so Avakian said it checked a lot of boxes.
Plus, pickleball is pretty popular. At French Park, more than 50 children participate in the youth pickleball clinics the city has offered in recent months. The city has also had waitlists for each of these programs since October.
“We have a very vocal and growing pickleball community,” Avakian said. “[Pickleball is a] recreational amenity that is for all ages, all abilities.”