For 38 weeks of the year, the Sutton East Tennis Club’s inflatable tennis bubble sits underneath the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge – directly across the river from the Island’s own tennis bubble – on top of the 1.25-acre Queensboro Oval, a public park. The group’s lease, which dates back to 1997, was set to expire in August, igniting demands from local residents to turn the space back into a full-time public park.
Sutton East Tennis leases the Queensboro Oval pursuant to a “concessionaire agreement,” a negotiated contract between a company and a government entity – in this case the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Residents, Community Board 8 (CB8) members, and other elected officials, including Council member Ben Kallos, have complained that the agreement with Sutton East Tennis prohibits the larger public from using the public park for all but about two months of the year when the space is converted to a softball field. (Though, according to Ben Kallos, “Each year when the tennis bubble is removed for just two and half months of summer, the land is left in almost unusable condition.”)
Last week, the city agreed to extend its lease with Sutton East Tennis until August 2018, while funding and design for an alternative use is determined, disappointing neighborhood advocates.
In a press release, Kallos said, “The Upper East Side has among the lowest amount of public park space in the City. Sutton East Tennis sits on City park land, but is not accessible to most community members with rates as high as $225 an hour that most cannot afford.”
In response to a question about the controversy on their Facebook page, Sutton East responded, “They want to put in a park. The space isn’t very conducive to a park. It’s loud because there is a bridge overhead. There is also a park directly across the street and another down on the East River that they have been constructing for five years. The cost to build a park will be around $4 million plus maintenance. Currently our lease pays the City $2.5 million per year plus it employs around 100 people if all the contractors are counted. The bubble is taken down for the entirety of the summer and it functions as a softball field. The city has never granted us a 12-month lease although we would have offered free tennis programs throughout the summer if we could get one.”
On our side of the river, the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club’s tennis bubble also sits under the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and is also subject to a concessionaire agreement. As of 1991, Roosevelt Island Racquet Club’s lease payments to the state were set at a minimum of $100,000 a year to increase after five years (in 1996) to over $400,000; the club would then pay a percentage of its revenues to the state, according to the original agreement.
Councilmember Ben Kallos, who attended the February CB8 meeting, suggested that Midtown East tennis players, “get on the Roosevelt Island Tram” to play at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club. He also expressed his support for the creation of a non-profit to maintain tennis courts at the Queensboro Oval, which would at least eliminate the high hourly cost to play tennis that currently exists thereby making it accessible to more community members.
“If you don’t want to worry about the RFP and don’t want [the] Parks [Department] to have to worry about ethics laws, the best thing you can do is get the community board to pass a resolution saying that it wants to work with a nonprofit ... and I can give funding from my office to get that started,” Kallos said.
The Parks Department is considering several different options to open up access to the park under the Queensboro Bridge at East 59th Street. In January, department officials presented three different options that involved shortening the length of time the tennis club can operate each year or replacing the bubble entirely with a turf field and a set of permanent tennis courts.
CB8 members said they preferred a larger turf field without the tennis courts.
Until those plans gather enough funding, the Parks Department will renew its lease with Sutton East Tennis Club when it expires on August 31 for one year, officials announced – about a week after dozens of tennis players flooded a CB8 meeting to demand that their tennis bubble remain where it is. Sutton East Tennis had emailed everyone on its list: “We need YOU and your family to be there with your rackets in hand to show your support.”