Officials serve notice on park
A concessionaire’s agreement with the Parks Department for use of the Queensboro Oval expires this year
For roughly nine months out of the year, a giant inflatable structure sits underneath the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, atop what is otherwise a public park, the 1.25-acre Queensboro Oval.
Inside that 45,000-square-foot bubble, whose entrance is at York Avenue and 59th Street, are eight clay tennis courts on which people pay anywhere from $60 to $225 an hour to play.
As the website of the Sutton East Tennis Club’s parent company says, “Playing Tennis in Manhattan is not only a privilege, but now a luxury.” And to extend that privilege to all comers willing and able, Sutton East paid the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation $2.6 million in 2016, according to a concessionaire’s agreement.
But the district’s community board, elected officials and residents have become increasingly vocal in their efforts to stake the larger public’s claim to the Queensboro Oval when the agreement expires in August.
“We definitely want it returned to the public full time in the fall of 2017,” Community Board 8’s chairman, Jim Clynes, said last week. “We want it handed over officially even if it’s left vacant.”
Clynes has met with the Parks Department’s commissioner, Mitchell Silver, twice in recent months to discuss the oval’s future. At the most recent meeting, in December at Silver’s request, the department presented Clynes three options for the oval, two which would return the oval to full public use. One would entail the construction of a multiuse, synthetic turf field, bathrooms, lockers and other amenities at an estimated cost of $6.1 million and take three to five years to build.
Another option is a smaller multi-use field as well as four tennis courts but no amenities, at an estimated $5 million. Those options, according to the presentation, would mean forfeiting thousands of tennis court hours and loss of city revenue and private-sector jobs.
The third option presented to Clynes would have a concessionaire, presumably Sutton East, lease the oval six months out of each year and assume responsibility for its upkeep year-around.
“We don’t consider that an option at all,” Clynes said of the last possibility.
“It’s totally up to the parks commissioner to make the final decision. But I have faith in him,” he said. “I’m convinced the Parks Department will do the right thing.”
The Parks Department, however, last week said the options presented to Clynes were examples of the park’s potential uses and did not represent a comprehensive list.
“We are continuing our open dialogue with community stakeholders with a mutual goal to maximize year round utilization of the space that provides youth and adult recreational opportunities, including summertime activation,” a department statement said.
A Parks Department representative will discuss the options and listen to feedback at the community board’s parks committee meeting on Jan. 12, at which the committee is expected to vote on the options. The full board would then take up the committee’s recommendation.
The panels’ votes would have no binding influence on the commissioner’s determination. A Parks Department spokeswoman did not say when Silver would make a determination about the oval’s future.
The Oval is in City Council’s District 5, which ranks near the bottom of the city’s 51 districts in terms of park and playground space per resident, according to New Yorkers For Parks. The organization’s research shows that the district has about one-third the amount of athletic field space it considers “standard” for the city.
“And with the overdevelopment of apartment buildings on the Upper East Side, there’s going to be even more of a need for open space,” Clynes said.
Since the bubble takes weeks to set up and dismantle, the oval is ostensibly open to the wider community in just July and August when it hosts softball games and other activities.
Sutton East has proposed keeping the bubble up year round, but allow players with city-issued tennis permits — set to cost $100 for adults 18-61, $20 for seniors and $10 for those under 18 this season — to use the courts during the summer.
Sutton East’s director, Tony Scolnick, who has been with the club since its inception in 1979, said that since the oval is right under the Queensboro Bridge, it’s not conducive to outdoor activities. “Do they want to have a park here with the loud noises of the bridge and the fumes coming off, or do they want to have a state-of-the-art tennis club that brings in large income?” he said in July.
The current concessionaire’s agreement, initiated in 2008, calls for York Avenue Tennis, the LLC behind Sutton East, to pay either a set annual fee or 35 percent of the club’s gross receipts, whichever is highest. The company paid the city $1.785 million in 2008, an amount that has which has increased 5 percent each year since then. If the pattern holds, Sutton will pay Parks $2,637,258 this year.
A once-a-week softball permit from the Parks Department, on the other hand, costs a few hundred dollars a season.
Still, Clynes is optimistic that Silver will see the value in opening the park to the larger community.
“Parks are for people, not for profit,” Clynes said, alluding to Sutton East’s operation. The city’s revenue “is not going to be a final factor in this.”
Richard Khavkine: email@example.com
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