BY JACKSON CHEN | East Side politicians have joined Community Board 8’s efforts to “de-privatize” the Queensboro Oval as the city’s lease with a tennis court operator there draws closer to an end.
The park, located on York Avenue between East 59th and 60th Streets, is occupied by Sutton East Tennis and its courts and bubbles from September to June under terms of a 10-year lease that started in 1997.
With the lease expiring next year, CB8 ramped up its efforts to regain public use of the space year-round with a lively community rally on June 25. And momentum is growing significantly with strong support from the East Side’s electeds.
“When you live around concrete and glass, to have green around is something very, very important,” Congressmember Carolyn Maloney said. “I can’t think of a more worthy cause.”
Originating with CB8’s Parks Committee, the push for returning the park to a public amenity is intended to address a severe lack of open space on the Upper East Side.
“It underscores the extreme importance of open space to the livability of a community,” Peggy Price, co-chair of CB8’s Parks Committee said. “We have very large buildings and a huge residential community around here that lack adequate open space.”
Price, along with her co-chair Susan Evans and other CB8 members, voiced a vision of a public park that could include a running track, soccer field, baseball and softball fields, and tennis courts.
Evans said CB8 members aren’t park designers, but the professionals who are would have a completely open field with endless possibilities. Her hope is that the Queensboro Oval could rival something as unique as the High Line, the park in Chelsea that’s built on unused elevated train tracks.
And Maloney isn’t the only outspoken ally of the park, as Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Ben Kallos, State Senator Liz Krueger, and Assemblymembers Dan Quart and Rebecca Seawright have also joined the call for de-privatization.
For Kallos, it was his first time in the Queensboro Oval because, he said, Sutton East’s tennis bubbles made the space inaccessible for a majority of the year.
In crunching the numbers, the councilmember compared the $80 to $225 per hour costs of playing at Sutton East Tennis Club to the city permits that have tennis fees of just $200 a year (though the Parks Department has noted the availability of free and reduced programming at the facility).
“This space is on an order of magnitude more expensive by 15 times than a comparable space run by the Parks Department,” Kallos said. “Worse yet, this is what the space looks like when they gave it back… an empty lot with dirt.”
In contrast to a barren field of rust-colored dust, Brewer said, the space has potential for far more.
“It’s a place that people could exercise and see their neighbors,” Brewer said. “Everywhere in New York we need every single aspect of open space for the public for our mental health, our physical health, and the health of our families.”
Brewer admitted she played tennis at the space for 10 years —adding she plans not to use the facility anymore — but said it is better suited as open space for the community.
With so many politicians on the side of de-privatization, the movement has sped up and arrived at the Department of Parks and Recreation’s door. The department is facing a short timeline for a decision, since it typically begins the process of sending out a request for proposals about a year prior to the expiration of a lease such as Sutton East currently has.
Speaking for Sutton East, Tony Scolnick said that the decision is up to the Parks Department and he would willingly comply.
“If they tell me to pack it up, then we pack it up,” Scolnick said. “If they say they want us to run tennis, we’ll run a quality program.”
The Sutton East Tennis owner explained that annually he has paid around $2.5 million in concession fees, in addition to a commercial rent tax of roughly $97,000, to the city for the right to operate his facility there.
With the 10-year lease running out, he said he has proposed an expanded tennis program with year-round offerings in an air-conditioned facility.
“We realize the Parks Department has a difficult decision,” Scolnick said. “Our game plan here is to 100 percent be cooperative with the Parks Department.”
Residents who grew up near the park, learning how to ride bikes and play baseball there, are hoping their local elected officials are the extra push they need to sway the agency.
Fighting off a cold she caught during the sit-in at the US Capitol Democrats staged last week demanding action on gun control in the wake of the Orlando gay bar massacre, Maloney remained strong in her demand for taking back Queensboro Oval.
“I consider this fight already won because we are right and we are going to make it happen,” she said. “If we don’t get our way, we’re going to be sleeping in the open space until we get it.”