By Gabriela Resto-Montero
UPPER EAST SIDE — It was game, set, but not quite match for the Sutton East Tennis Club at a Community Board 8 parks committee meeting Thursday.
The board unanimously approved a resolution to try to block the club from extending its lease at the Queensboro Oval on E. 59th Street from eight months to year-round.
The vote came one month after the Parks Department approved Sutton East's application in what critics call a back-door deal, unleashing outrage from the community over the city's decision to hand over public park land to a privately-owned club.
"If you're going to start selling park space to private entities, I'd like to know about Central Park because it would make a great golf course," said Robert Bailin, who grew up playing baseball on the Oval and was one of dozens of softball players who turned out to oppose the tennis bubble.
Currently, the tennis club operates within a climate-controlled bubble under the Queensboro Bridge eight months out of the year. Recreational softball players and community members use the space from late April through August each year when the club takes the bubble down.
The Community Board is internally divided over whether they had enough notice from the city to alert the public about the looming change, which the Parks Department said began as early as last April.
Critics said they didn't hear anything about the change until late last fall, when they say it was too late to stop the deal.
“It was totally behind closed doors and the city should be ashamed of itself,” said Geoffrey Croft of the NYC Park Advocates. “This meeting shouldn’t be happening.”
But supporters of Sutton East argued the tennis courts serve thousands of people in the area and bring in much-needed business.
Nearly 50 employees and tennis pros work at the club but lose their jobs each year when it hands the space back to the city, said club manager Jerry Elman.
In exchange for the extended lease, the club will provide up to 120 hours of free public tennis instruction for youth programs, said William Castro, the Parks Department's Manhattan commissioner.
The club charges as much as $180 per hour for court space, for a foursome.
The city will get 35 percent of of the tennis bubble's profits over the summer months and 25 percent of the profits the rest of the year, the Daily News reported. That will amount to an estimated $1.9 million in 2010 and $2.2 million the following year, the paper said.
A heated round of public statements stretched for more than an hour inside a cramped Hunter College student lounge Thursday night, as advocates for both sides took to the microphone to argue about the field.
The softball supporters, some wearing jerseys and ball caps, said they wanted to preserve shrinking public access to greenspace in Manhattan.
"Playing under the bridge is a wonderfully surreal experience. It’s a unique field, it’s like New York’s version of Fenway [Park]," said Bradley Cohen, who has held a permit to play softball on the field for the past 30 years.
Tennis supporters said they did a better job of using the space.
"They use the space maybe twice a day, it's a waste of space," said Terrence Nugent, a tennis pro at Sutton East, of the softball teams. "We've got 7,500 people coming in a week, the city got us the courts for a reason."
The resolution will go to a full community board vote in March. If it passes it will be submitted to the Parks Department for consideration.
The Parks Department is under no obligation to adopt the board's recommendation.