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Randall's Island Tennis Court Expansion Worries Advocates

By Jeff Mays | November 7, 2011 9:09pm
John McEnroe joked about playing at Randall's Island when the fields were a little more seedy in the 1970s.
John McEnroe joked about playing at Randall's Island when the fields were a little more seedy in the 1970s.
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DNAinfo/Gabriela Resto-Montero

HARLEM — Park advocates are worried that poor communities in East Harlem and the South Bronx are being shortchanged by plans to add nine additional tennis courts on Randall's Island as part of a multi-million dollar expansion.

The $19 million Sportime tennis center on the island, located between East Harlem and the South Bronx, includes a tennis academy run by tennis great John McEnroe.

Despite the proximity to neighborhoods with need for youth programming, community members said the tennis fees charged by Sportime make it inaccessible to kids and adults in East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Yearly memberships can cost upward of $1,000, while daily fees can range from $10 to $20 per person.

"People from East Harlem and the South Bronx are not using the facility. They are not the target audience," said Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates.

The Randall's Island Sports Foundation manages the site and uses revenue from Sportime to manage and improve the island. It's money that could be going to parks in East Harlem and the South Bronx, community members said.

An expansion, they claimed, would reward an organization that is not supporting neighboring communities in need, community members said.

Philip Abramson, a spokesman for the Parks Department, said the nine court expansion would be located on what is now a parking lot. There would also be "additional improvements" to "surrounding facilities on Randall’s Island," he said.

"The plans will soon be presented to the community board for full public review," Abramson said in an email statement.

Because the expansion will have to go through a land use review, unlike the original construction of the tennis center and other fields on the island, East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said the public will have a chance to give input.

"My vetting process is going to look at how much the public can use the space and are school kids coming in?" Mark-Viverito said of the "extremely preliminary" proposal.

But community advocates such as Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a neighborhood advocacy group, said she was already concerned.

"It seems like a done deal before the land use review process," Ortiz said.

Ortiz also said she would like to know who will benefit from the additional revenue after the project is completed and added that community members are still fuzzy on the financial relationship between the Parks Department, Randall's Island Sports Foundation and groups like Sportime.

Though advocates were also concerned about whether any city funds would be used for the project, Sportime will pay for the entire project, according to the Parks Department.

"The city should dramatically alter the arrangement it has with this group. A private group should not be able to run public parkland," said Croft. "It's a slap in the face to the community."

City officials said the partnership has turned the island into a useful place of recreation. It previously contained dilapidated fields and unkempt parkland before the $130 million project to add 60 fields was completed along with restoration of the waterfront.

But access to Randall's Island remains a big issue as a footbridge to it from East Harlem is currently under repair.

"We want to make sure there is equal opportunity for people to have better access to the island. This is public land and the public should have access to it," said Matthew Washington, chair of Community Board 11 and a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit to prevent the city from turning over fields on the island to the exclusive use of private schools for a fee.

"We want to make sure money is not a barrier for kids in our community," Washington said about the tennnis courts. 

Washington said he would like to see scholarships to allow kids of all skill levels be exposed to tennis.