Parks Department, Community at Loggerheads on Queensboro Oval’s Future

Neighborhood residents gathered for a June rally demanding that Queensboro Oval be returned to full time public use when the current tennis club lease expires next August. | JACKSON CHEN
Neighborhood residents gathered for a June rally demanding that Queensboro Oval be returned to full time public use when the current tennis club lease expires next August. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | Community Board 8 and elected officials are gearing up for a battle to take back Queensboro Oval for full-time public use even as the Department of Parks and Recreation made clear its intention to issue a request for proposals for continued private management of the park land.

Representatives of the Department of Parks and Recreation attended CB8’s Parks Committee meeting on September 8 to discuss the preliminary licensing details they envision for the park located under the Queensboro Bridge on York Avenue between East 59th and 60th Streets.

The license for the park’s current operator, Sutton East Tennis and its owner Tony Scolnick, expires in August 2017. To make for a smooth transition between operators, the parks department informed CB8 it is planning to issue an RFP as early as mid-October.

While the RFP has not been drafted yet, the agency representatives said they’re looking for a vendor to commit to a 10-year license, with as many as nine months each year devoted to a designated use and at least three months open for free public use, according to David Cerron, Parks’ chief of revenue, concessions, and controls oversight.

The parks department said it is looking for any type of indoor or outdoor sports recreation facility, including — but not limited to — an ice rink, soccer pitch, football field, or even tennis courts again.

“The goal is really to activate the site for as many members of the public for as long a period of time as possible,” Phil Abramson, the agency’s revenue communications director, said.

However, for community board members and elected officials, the site’s most appropriate use is having it be a full-time park open to the public throughout the entire year.

“If something is unavailable to you 75 percent of the time… if it’s only available 25 percent of the time, I’m not going to be in the habit of using that space,” CB8 member Scott Falk said. “I’m just never going to go there no matter how close it is.”

According to the Parks representatives, the idea of a full-time park would neglect the current user base of Sutton East Tennis and most likely leave the park empty during the winter months. Many park advocates, however, insisted that if the park were open consistently, neighbors would visit regardless of the weather.

If Parks were to go forward with the RFP, State Assemblymember Dan Quart predicted the only responses would come from operators interested in using the full nine-month allowance.

“If you had an RFP put out for up to nine months, I would assume that entity would want nine months or as close to it as possible,” he said. “I don’t understand the economic viability of anyone who would bid for anything less than nine months.”

Quart said that his ideal outcome would be for a bocce ball vendor to come with two small courts, leaving the rest open to the public, but he added, “I would fail to see how that individual could make that enterprise financially successful.”

Instead, the assemblymember said the manner in which the parks department is approaching the RFP process demonstrates a “failure of vision” on the part of both Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“If the problem is lack of open space, we’re given an opportunity to think big and have a greater vision of what could be done,” Quart said. “What I’m suggesting is a 365-day use… and I’m not confident that the parameters [Parks is] putting on the RFP will lead to a result we all want.”

Quart is joined by a united front of local officials, including Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, and City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who all issued an adamant call for opening the park up for full time use during a June 25 rally organized by CB8.

“This is a city park but it has been privatized for decades,” Kallos said. “It is city-owned land for the sole purpose of being park space, and the elected officials have capital funding that we can put into the park.”

He added that instead of pursuing an RFP, the parks department should recognize what he described as a treasure chest of funding options available through elected officials who are more than willing to support the park.

“I have secured tens of millions of dollars from the private sector to improve city park land,” Kallos said. “I am proud to pledge additional funding to the Queensboro Oval to build the amenities that the community wants to use 365 days a year.”

According to Parks Committee member Rita Popper, however, the details available about the prospective RFP indicate that the fix is in to maintain the status quo on Queensboro Oval’s use.

“Where are you going to find a vendor for nine months who’s going to set up, pack up, and after set back up and pack back up,” Popper said. “This is an RFP for the tennis club.”

CB8 members also complained about the risk of having another “bad neighbor,” as Parks Committee member Tricia Shimamura described the current operator. Leaving a vendor in charge of the space even when it is not their operating season, she said, is a recipe for continuing an unfortunate pattern in which the park falls into poor condition during the off-season.

But parks department officials refused CB8’s request that it be able to collaborate on the RFP, explaining that the drafting process is kept private to ensure competitiveness.

For Kallos, the department’s unwillingness to include the community will ensure the eventual failure of whatever vendor it chooses. He recommended that instead of an RFP, Parks issue a request for expression of interest, which would create a more open-ended exploration of options and allow for more public oversight.

In the end, the CB8 Parks Committee passed a resolution rejecting the RFP idea and urging Parks to abort the process. It also approved a motion to have the full board write to Commissioner Silver urging him to attend the Parks Committee meeting in October so that he can better understand the depth of community feeling on the issue.

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