HARLEM— A private Randall's Island tennis center that includes an academy run by tennis champion John McEnroe plans to improve two parks in East Harlem and the South Bronx, increase the hours of tennis instruction for local kids and light two ball fields in exchange for being allowed to build nine new court.
The original site of the $8 to $10 million expansion by SPORTIME's tennis center was rejected by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority because the land is used as a staging area to help make bridge repairs.
The new site, which is currently a baseball field, is just east of the existing $19 million tennis center and closer than the location previously proposed.
In exchange for expanding, SPORTIME is offering to spend $1.2 million to make upgrades to the 103rd Street playground at the FDR Drive in East Harlem and Pulaski Park at Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx.
There are currently no lighted ball fields on Randall's Island. The two new lighted fields will allow increased hours of access for local residents, say SPORTIME officials.
The company is also proposing to provide $150,000 in new scholarships for young tennis players and increased bus transportation for area schools to participate in tennis programs on the island.
"I want to give as many kids in this community the opportunity to learn a sport that you can play for a lifetime to keep in shape and use to win scholarships to access higher education," said Ayo Haynes, vice-chair of Community Board 11's Land Use committee in praising the proposal.
Haynes said she attended college on a partial tennis scholarship.
"SPORTIME has gone above and beyond," added CB 11 Land Use committee chair LaShawn Henry.
SPORTIME, which operates 12 clubs in New York and Long Island, has had a contentious relationship with communities in East Harlem and the South Bronx in the past.
The company was granted public parkland under a controversial concession agreement with the city via the Randall's Island Sports Foundation. But the group's initial deal — which was not subjected to any land use review — angered activists who said the $72 to $102-per-hour court time fees, as well as up to $6,000 fees for a package of one-hour lessons, are out of the reach of families in Harlem and the South Bronx.
SPORTIME hopes for their new expansion proposal to enter the land use review process in the first quarter of 2014.
When the new proposal came up to add nine courts to its existing 20 courts, local politicians and community residents and activists demanded answers from SPORTIME about its finances and existing promises of community engagement.
"They are not good neighbors so the city shouldn't give them more land while there are so many unanswered questions," said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation.
But Daniel White, a spokesman for SPORTIME, said there has been a conscious effort by the company to engage the needs and concerns of South Bronx and East Harlem residents.
"People saw SPORTIME was genuine and had the same goals as the community and it fostered a partnership," said White.
White said the company plans on petitioning the incoming city administration and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to improve bus and ferry transportation options to reach the island. Under the plan, 1,300 kids from East Harlem and the South Bronx will get 6,000 hours of instruction per year because of the increased number of tennis courts, up from the 2,500 hours currently provided to 1,000 kids.
In five years, SPORTIME wants half of its scholarship recipients to come from East Harlem and the South Bronx.
"They don't just put a racket in a kid's hand as a one off thing. Their motto is to make sure kids can play consistently over a long period of time to allow kids to get a feel for the game and develop an interest and an appetite," said White.
Other proposed improvements that SPORTIME is promising to fund include planting a riverfront native plant garden. The park improvements will add things like soft synthetic play surfaces as well as small tennis courts so that instruction can also be given in the parks.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, chair of the city council's park committee, has questioned SPORTIME in the past but did not respond to requests for comment regarding the new proposal.
Ortiz said there is a larger issue at stake.
"It's great and wonderful that they will help renovate a local park but we are working hard to prevent the privatization of the sports fields on Randall's Island," she said.