Community looks to burst oval bubble

| 05 Apr 2016 | 12:33

Among the ideal outdoor spots to play softball on the Upper East Side is right under the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

For nearly nine months out of each year, though, the field, called the Queensboro Oval, is covered by a large inflatable white bubble — the indoor home to one of the city's choice tennis facilities. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., players can hit on eight clay courts operated run the Sutton East Tennis Club under a concession license issued by the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

But for years, neighborhood residents have said they want more than a few weeks each year to use the ballfield, which is overseen by the city's Parks & Recreation Department.

“Our community-at-large has the least amount of public space in NYC,” said Peggy Price, co-chair of Community Board 8's Parks and Recreation Committee. “People are paying taxes for parkland that they can't access most of the year. We are trying to make parkland already available to us for public use.”

CB8 and city officials are in discussions about what will happen once the Parks Department's current agreement with Sutton East expires in August 2017 and Jim Clynes, the community board's chairman, said the best outcome would be to allow the Oval to become “a full-time public park.”

In a statement, the Parks' Department's borough commissioner, William Castro, said the department is evaluating options for “future use” of the site.

“In accordance with the rules of the City's Franchise and Concession Review Committee, NYC Parks will review plans for any potential Requests for Proposals with the community board and invite its feedback,” the statement says.

But the financial math tells its own story, as does the Parks Departments past action with regard to the park.

York Avenue Tennis, the LLC behind Sutton East, paid the city $1.785 million in 2008 the first year of the current license agreement with the Parks Department, which calls for the company to pay either a set annual fee, which has increased 5 percent each year since 2008, or 35 percent of the club's gross receipts, whichever is highest. According to the Parks Department, the company has paid the annual fee each year. If the pattern holds, Sutton will pay Parks $2,637,258 in 2017, the last year of the current agreement.

A once-a-week softball permit from the Parks Department, on the other hand, costs a few hundred dollars a season. According to a Department “usage report,” posted online, a single softball game is scheduled for nearly each day the tennis bubble will be down this summer, from June 15 to Aug. 29. Times the field are not in use by permitted holders would presumably be available for to whoever wants to organize pick-up games.

Although Sutton is, technically and as Castro says, a public concession, playing tennis there doesn't come cheap, with one-hour court fees ranging from $80 to $225, according to a representative at Sutton East. By contrast a seasonal, nearly 8-month permit to play on city-owned and -maintained courts costs $200 for players 18 to 61. For older and younger players, seasonal permits cost $10 and $20, respectively. Single-play permits on those courts cost $15.

As Castro noted, the nonprofit City Parks Foundation, which is distinct from the Parks Department, does get some donated court time at Sutton. Mike Silverman, the director of sports for City Parks Foundation, said Sutton East has long supported the organization's free youth tennis program by donating weekly indoor court time for its intermediate youth program from October through April.

He said the club offers court rentals for $5 an hour to junior tennis players when open courts are available. “The high cost of indoor court time can be cost-prohibitive for many kids, so this opportunity has encouraged more of our dedicated juniors to practice year-round," he said in a statement.

In 2010, a Parks Department plan to allow Sutton East to operate year around was shelved after community opposition. Two years later, though, Parks extended Sutton East's time at the Oval by six weeks.

Last year, CB8 proposed that the lease agreements be reduced to a portion of the year, with a board resolution suggesting that Sutton East, which according to the club, has operated at the Oval for nearly 40 years, operate at the site six months out of the year.

“A perfect solution will be for the park to be open to the public year round, but to compromise, perhaps during the cold months let the tennis club operate the park, and warmer months let the community have it,” said Clynes, the community board's chairman. “Six months to the community, six months tennis. That's a win-win situation for both.”

However, Clynes said that the board’s current majority opinion – that the Oval should be open to the public full time – needs to prevail. That sentiment was reflected first in July, when the board unanimously adopted another resolution, this time urging Parks to not renew its contract with Sutton East, and to instead return the park to full public use. And a few weeks ago, the board, again unanimously, approved a resolution outlining CB8's strong desire for the Oval to return to the community full time as a multi-recreational area with added features for track, soccer, softball and tennis as well as an ice skating rink during the winter months, to maximize year round usage.

That would be welcome news to Al Morales, the director the Yorkville Sports Association, who has been party to softball leasing contract with the Parks Department for about 25 years. He recalls the years when the tennis club would occupy the Oval for about six months each year, allowing softball leagues to play from the middle of April until late September, sometimes October. He said the leagues have now just two months to play.

“We used to split the time half and half. We have an opportunity to play but not much of an opportunity. We definitely want our time back,” said Morales, adding that the Oval is one of the few remaining spaces for softball and baseball teams to play on the Upper East Side, and in some cases, the only place.

The Parks Department, he said, is falling short of its mission.

“They're shutting out a large community and lots of sports teams,” he said.

CB8's Parks and Recreation Committee meets April 7, with the Oval again on the agenda.