UPPER EAST SIDE — Tennis players who've so far remained quiet about a proposal to remove a tennis bubble from an Upper East Side park showed up in droves at a community meeting demanding that their space be left alone.
Neighbors of the for-profit Sutton East Tennis Club's practice bubble — which has occupied the Queensboro Oval, a one-acre city park under the Queensboro Bridge at East 59th Street, since 1997 — have recently been pushing the city to convert it into a multi-use space.
In response, Parks Department officials presented three different options that involve 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.
Sutton East Tennis Club's lease with the city is set to expire at the end of August, and officials are still deciding whether to extend it or not.
The threat to the space left the local tennis community concerned — roughly 85 players, from elementary schoolers to the elderly, turned up at a Community Board 8 meeting Wednesday at Ramaz School.
Many of the players — some of whom brought tennis rackets which they were told to put away — were stopped from entering the room because it had reached capacity. Dozens of others stood in line to get their chance to speak on the issue.
"It's true the community board needs more [open] space in this area," said Arlene Virga, executive director of the Yorkville Youth Athletic Association.
"Let’s look at this space though. It's dirty and loud under the bridge and [without the bubble], if a ball was hit over the fence, it'd hit pedestrians and cars, and [before the bubble] the fields were unplayable for days after it rained.
"It is a dark and dingy area and quite secluded. You really want children playing there?"
Upper West Sider Susan Sullivan, who has used the tennis bubble for years with her family, said it doesn't make sense to get rid of it because it serves a variety of uses.
"Very few city schools offer tennis as an afterschool sport," she said.
"Having tennis courts there is not only a tremendous revenue stream for the city, but it's good for all of New York City residents. To lose Sutton East, it would be losing an every day source of recreation, sports and health, and would limit our way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
"If you eliminate it from the consumer market, it will just boost the prices at all other tennis venues."
Supporters of the tennis bubble handed out fliers with a link to an online petition with the title "Save indoor tennis in Manhattan now before it is too late!!!" As of Friday morning, it had gathered 3,482 signatures.
John Quealy, who travels from Queens to practice at the Queensboro Oval, called the plan to close Sutton East a "bad economic decision."
"Sutton East brings people from outside of your community in here to shop and use your local businesses," he said.
"I can’t understand why local businesses aren’t appalled. I've been coming to this facility for about 20 years and we usually go out to restaurants after playing. I’ve shopped at local clothing stores in area.
"You are subtracting those people who come here and shop and taking them out of the area. That doesn’t seem too smart."
Those who supported ending Sutton East's lease and converting the space have their own paper petition, which had 1,000 signatures as of Thursday evening, according to CB8 chairman Jim Clynes.
Neighbors have called for the space to be re-opened, citing lack of green space in the neighborhood and the fact that the club charges for use of its courts even though it's on public land.
It charges up to $225 per court for an hour during peak times.
During off peak — weekday mornings, early afternoons and late nights and weekends — prices are typically around $13 per person for an hour of doubles or $510 per person for 10 hours of play, members said.
The club pays the city $2 million a year to use the space, employees and members of the club said.
And they noted that it frequently offers discounts, including low-cost group lessons to more than 80 kids on Saturdays in partnership with the Yorkville Youth Athletic Association.
In response to calls from residents for more access to the site, the city's Parks Department decided to hold off on issuing a request for proposals seeking recreational companies, like Sutton East, to take over the space once the club's lease ends.
Councilman Ben Kallos, who attended the CB8 meeting on Wednesday, supported finding new use for the Queenboro Oval, telling tennis players to "get on the Roosevelt Island tram" to play at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club or to back the creation of a non-profit that could maintain tennis courts at the location.
He pointed to the Riverside Clay Tennis Association which maintains courts at Riverside Park near West 96th Street.
"If you don't want to worry about the RFP and don't want Parks 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 like Riverside and I can give funding from my office to get that started," Kallos said.