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Randall's Island Tennis Plan Delayed Over Fears it Priced Out Locals

By Jeff Mays | December 15, 2011 10:02am | Updated on December 15, 2011 10:45am
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 — A hearing about proposals to expand a Randall's Island tennis center that includes an academy run by tennis great John McEnroe was cancelled after three elected officials objected that it priced out local communities.

Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito all wanted the hearing by the Franchise Concession Review Committee to be postponed because the Randall's Island Sports Foundation has not released requested financial and usage information.

The $19 million Sportime tennis center on the island, which includes a tennis academy run by McEnroe, was seeking permission to amend its agreement with the city to allow it to add nine additional tennis courts as part of a $6 to $7 million expansion.

But advocates from East Harlem and the South Bronx, neighborhoods bordering the island, say the fees charged by Sportime keep poor and middle-income children and adults from utilizing the facility. The proposed expansion has riled residents and advocates because the original 160,000 square foot facility did not undergo a land-use review.

"Based on what I've heard so far, it appears that Sportime's current facility at Randall's Island has not fully engaged with the local community. That is why we are looking to gather more information so that it can help inform us moving forward," said Mark-Viverito, chair of the council's parks and recreation committee, who sent a letter requesting the postponement.

According to Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, the center charges between $72 to $102 per hour for indoor court time, in addition to a $500 to $700 membership fee.

A package of one-hour tennis lessons can cost almost $6,000, and a tennis camp costs $500 per day for non-members, excluding food and transportation. McEnroe's tennis academy charges $3,600 to $4,800 for 34 weeks of two-hour lessons.

The center brought in $9 million in revenue last year but only offered 370 hours of scholarship time out of more than 120,000 playable hours. Croft called the figures "embarrasing."

"We don't know who or if anyone from East Harlem or the South Bronx plays there. It seems like we are getting nothing, zero, so there's nothing to discuss," said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, a neighborhood advocacy group

A coalition of park advocates also sued to stop the city from giving private schools exclusive use of the fields on school days in exchange for $52 million.

Liu's office has only received partial responses to requests for information.

“Comptroller Liu is grateful that the city withdrew the proposal and expects that the community will at last get some answers to their questions and concerns about the proposed expansion of the tennis center," said spokesman Matthew Sweeney.

Stringer agreed.

"The Borough President is concerned that the city....and Sporttime have not adequately consulted community stakeholders about this project and have also not been sufficiently transparent with information about the existing 20 tennis courts and the extent to which they can be made more accessible to the surrounding community and general public," said a Stringer spokesperson,

Parks Department spokesman Phillip Abramson said, "Sportime requested that their item be postponed from today's FCRC agenda as it was not time sensitive and it will be rescheduled for a later date."

Abramson said the project will begin the land-use process over the next two-and-a-half years and still has one-and-a-half years to get the required ammendment to its contract.

But Croft and other advocates say the idea of expansion needs to be taken off the table.

"Expanding should not be a consdideration until they deal with the issues there now and explain why the community is not benefiting in the way that it should from such a large project," said Croft.

The community would like a say in how the island is developed going forward and to help determine ways in which the island can best be of use to the public, said Croft. One example is the fact that there are tennis courts and a golf course, but no basketball courts on the island, he said.

"The people this is designed for are not the people who live in East Harlem and the South Bronx," said Croft. "The applicants forget this is public parkland and the community never had a chance to provide input."