Manhattan Express CB8’s Last-Ditch Effort to “De-Privatize” UES’ Queensboro Oval by JACKSON CHEN
As a tennis court operator’s contract for a park underneath the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge nears its end, Community Board 8 is ramping up its efforts to “de-privatize” Queensboro Oval.
According to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Sutton East Tennis has been operating courts at Queensboro Oval — located between 59th and 60th Streets to the west of York Avenue — with a tennis bubble from September to varying dates between April and June each year since 1997. Raising complaints about the lack of public access to the park and the area being left in poor condition after the tennis season ends in June , Community Board 8 has put in several years of effort at removing the operator and returning the park to full-time open space for the public.
“This situation does not appear to be tenable in keeping this public space privatized,” said Peggy Price, co-chair of CB8’s Parks and Recreation Committee. “We need to find a way to persuade the powers that be to let us have our park.”
While anyone in the city can play in the Sutton East Tennis Club by making a reservation, prices range from $80 to $225 an hour depending on the court. The Parks Department notes that through its partners, like City Parks Foundation, people have the ability to access free and reduced tennis programming.
But for Price, the court fees discourage use by the wider community and the park would better serve the neighborhood as public space.
With Sutton East’s contract expiring in August 2017 — the Parks Department said it usually starts its request for proposal process a year prior to the expiration of an existing license — CB8 feels this is the last year it has a chance to reclaim the space.
Despite the CB8’s “de-privatization” efforts, the Parks Department said it is premature to speak about the issue.
“Parks employs a good working relationship with the CB,” said Parks Department’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro, who added that the department acknowledged an April 2015 community board resolution calling for the reduction in the portion of the year allocated to Sutton East to six months, with the remainder of the year open for the park’s use as a ball field. “We would happily review any proposals presented.”
At the CB8 Parks Committee’s January 12 meeting, members laid out a plan of action that includes outreach efforts and garnering support from local elected officials. Committee members were largely working from a resolution they passed last July calling for a return to full-time public use of Queensboro Oval after the city ends its current lease with Sutton East.
To push the issue more into the forefront, Price said the committee would be working to boost public support through word-of-mouth by going down to the oval’s immediate vicinity to speak with residents.
Committee members are also working with City Councilmember Ben Kallos to draft a letter to the Parks Department expressing the community’s interest in returning Queensboro Oval to unfettered public access.
“We don’t have enough parks in the district,” Kallos said. “We have some of the lowest numbers of parks space per capita. Any place we have park land, we need to be using it as park land for the entire community.”
According to a study done by a parks advocacy organization in 2013, Kallos’ District 5 ranked the fifth worst in the ratio of land area to parks space out of all 51 Council districts.
In the New Yorkers for Parks’ study, the district falls far short of the standards set out by the group, which call for 2.5 acres of total open space per 1,000 residents. Kallos’ district scored only 0.47 acres of open space per 1,000 residents.
The group’s study also noted that the balance between public use as a ball field and private use as tennis courts shifted in 2012 to the advantage of the courts’ operator, when it secured an additional six weeks of time that keeps the bubble in the park into June.
To combat what they deem a slow creep of private use, Kallos said he would be working with the community board by reviewing the current contract with Sutton East, making sure the contract isn’t renewed, and trying to secure city funds to revert the park into public space year-round.
“In order for this to work, we’re going to have to pay a lot of attention between now and 2017 and make sure this contract doesn’t get renewed,” Kallos said.
The councilmember said he’s heard numerous complaints from the Sutton Place neighborhood and from the CB8 Parks Committee, all expressing displeasure with the tennis bubble setup.
“We are a very densely populated area which is getting more dense, but we’re not getting comparable park land,” Price said, adding that there’s too little room for children to play and for adults to enjoy the outdoors.
As for Queensboro Oval’s future, Price echoes her community board’s feelings that it should be a multi-use park that operates like any other city park.
“It would be just such a terrific amenity for the community,” she said. “We could have any number of different activities there from softball to public tennis courts, to places where people could relax and enjoy themselves.”
Representatives of Sutton East did not respond to a request for comment.