Sunday, April 15, 2012

Queensboro Oval Park Ballfield /Tennis Privatization Fight Heats Up - Again

Upscale Tennis Land grab Rears Its Ugly Head Again.

SHUT OUT: Jonah and Aidan Keller stand outside the Sutton East Tennis Club, which normally would vacate their local park under the Queensboro Bridge in April.
SHUT OUT- ACCESS DENIED. Jonah and Aidan Keller stand outside the Sutton East Tennis Club, which normally would vacate their local park under the Queensboro Bridge in April. (Photo: J.C. RICE)

“I hate it,” said Jonah Keller, 9, whose twin brother, Aidan, won’t have access to the Queensboro Oval tucked under the 59th Street Bridge until the end of June, after the owner of the Sutton East Tennis Club dismantles the massive bubble that covers the entire acre-and-a-quarter field.

“There’s nowhere else where we can hit a ball, because you can hit it hard and there’s a backstop,” Aidan told the NY Post. “We love to ride our bikes there because it’s safe. If I fall, I fall on soft red clay.”


By Geoffrey Croft

Irate ballfield users and Community Board 8 members experienced Deja Vu this week when they were informed by the Parks Department that the agency had granted the city's most expensive tennis concession on public parkland additional time.

Ballfield permit holders who use the popular park under the 59th Street bridge in Manhattan had been kept in the dark as to why they hadn't yet received their permits. Now they know why. Tony Scolnick's Sutton Place Tennis Club was granted an additional six weeks to run his private tennis concession club in yet another behind closed door deal orchestrated by the Parks Department's revenue division.

The Parks Department said the agreement was already "signed and in effect."

Overstaying Its welcome. Deja Vu All Over Again In Queensboro Oval Park Tennis Privatization Fight. Queensboro Oval softball field under the 59th Street Bridge at York Avenue. The Sutton Place Tennis Club concession charges the highest price of any tennis concession on NYC park land - up to $ 195 per hour. Without notifying the community, once again, the Bloomberg administration struck a deal to allow the private tennis club to extend its season whereby displacing park users in a community has the least amount of park and open space in the entire city. (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)

Queensboro Oval Park Ballfield (Image: Google.)

Questions were raised once again why the community was only finding out about this deal now, when since at least December 2011 Sutton East Tennis Club has been advertising tennis through June 14th, long after the ballfields are supposed to be available to the public.

This lack of transparency is particularly inflammatory considering the last time the issue of the extending the tennis concession surfaced in 2010 was when the agency's revenue division struck a behind closed door deal to allow the private tennis club on public park to go from seasonal to year-round. The Community Board vote came five months after the concessionaire had already signed a contract with Parks. Opponents of the plan charge they had not been properly notified of the proposal.

Sources told A Walk In The Park that Tony Scolnick/Sutton East Tennis Club had threatened to sue the City/Parks over the cancellation of this contract.

After the Community Board vote in 2010, Tony Scolnick, the director of Sutton East Tennis, told the New York Times, “We do feel that we have an enforceable contract.” He also repeatedly said that to me as well.

Since signing the contract, Mr. Scolnick told the New York Times, in 2010 he had obtained a $300, 000 loan to equip the site with air-conditioning.

According to Betsy Smith, head of revenue and marketing for the Parks Department and Mayor Bloomberg family friend, the reason for the extension was because the concessioner made a "substantial investment" to convert the bubble to year-around.

In an April 6, 2012 email to Barbara Rudder, co-chair of the parks committee, Mr. Smith said this deal is a "fair and appropriate compromise" considering Scolnick's contract to extend his tennis concession to year-round play was cancelled in 2010. (Betsy's revenue division negotiated the deal) The plan was defeated after community outrage. Community Board 8 voted 35 to 2, with two abstentions to reject it.

"This, Barbara, seemed a fair and appropriate compromise given the legitimacy of the concessionaire's position, and the legality and appropriateness of the agency's original decision," Ms. Smith wrote.

In a follow up statement on Friday, Ms. Smith said by the time Parks decided not to move ahead with the plan, "the Sutton Avenue Tennis Club had already made a substantial investment to convert the bubble to a year-round operation based on the execution of the contract amendment and its registration by the Comptroller. It was therefore prudent to address the legitimate concerns raised by the concessionaire, and we reached an agreement with them to extend the indoor season by six weeks."

Ms. Smith did not provide any details or proof of any investments made. A copy of the Sutton East Tennis Club six week extension agreement was not made available at the community board meeting. When asked for a copy the Parks press office said to FOIL for that information, a common delay tacit used by the administration.

When repeatedly asked to provide a breakdown of any investments and/or any related costs alleged by Scolnick, the Parks Department's press office refused to respond. Messages left for Mr. Scolnick at Sutton East Tennis Club were not returned.

The Parks Department was also asked when the contract was signed, how much in projected revenue the city/Sutton East Tennis Club stood to gain from extension, whether the extension for only for one season and would the six weeks be given back for ballfield use in the Fall as the community board is requesting. We also asked them to comment on whether Tony Scolnick/Sutton East Tennis Club had threatened to sue the city/DPR over this issue and if the agency had any such discussions.

The press office refused to respond.

"From the point of view of the Community Board we hoped that our conversation that our responsiveness to your concerns would be seen as a positive compromise to address competing interests over the use of this parkland, " Mr. Smith wrote to Ms. Rudder.

Apparently not. On Wednesday evening the Community Board firmly condemned this latest action. They
reaffirmed their strong resolution passed two years ago and added language in a new one that requires the seized time be restored in the Fall.

Ms. Rudder said her proudest moment as a board member came, "miraculously" when the board nearly unanimously voted down the original extension agreement.

The agency sent Park District manager Mark Vaccaro to face the angry crowd.

"I can only give a little bit of information," he began.

"My understanding is that the changes that were made in the contract with the tennis bubble were done through our revenue and legal department, not our permit department," he said.

"Legal and revenue I understand worked out a new contract that was six weeks longer with the tennis bubble."

He said it was above his "pay grade" to know what that involved.

Vaccaro said there are a limited number of ballfields but a huge number of permits. He said there were a number of existing permit holders that lost slots but they have been offered different times at different fields.

"Yeah in Siberia," an irate permit holder interrupted.

Al Morales who's has been playing there for thirty years, said he was offered a permit in Inwood Hill Park in at the tip of Manhattan on the Westside.

Mr. Vaccaro focused on the permitted league play but ignored the loss of open space issues and did not address the numerous non-permitted activities that occur in the park.

He could answer any financial or legal questions.

Joe Namath slugs softballs under 59th Street Bridge in 1969 wearing stylish pants. (Photo:Garrett/NY Daily News)

A dozen members of the public spoke passionately against the extension, including three members of the Bondy family. An elderly woman who said she played tennis there was the only person to spoke in favor of the extension.

"Revenue controls the tennis bubbles," Mr. Vaccaro responded when a number of the audience asked why the bubble was being allowed to stay up. "I don't know why they did it, as I said it's not what I do."

After applying for permits in January as he normally does, long-time ballfield user Bradley Cohen became concerned and suspicious that he and others had not heard back from the Parks Department Permit Office months later. He decided to pay the permit office a personal visit where he was told permits were being delayed.

On March 22, Bradley Cohen wrote to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe but he said he never received a response.

"I do not know why this is suddenly an 'issue' again. I see this as another attempt by the tennis concessionaire to monopolize this field," Mr. Cohen wrote.

"They already have 8 months out of the year and now want to take away from the 4 months that we have left to play softball., Additionally, the fact that we were not notified of this delay until now (and only because I personally went down to the DOP office) is also a concern."

Ballplayers also bitterly complained that the city long ago allowed the fields to deteriorate. They also said dedicated maintenance mitigation funds from a nearby building were not allocated there.

Many asked where the money was.

For over 40 years, The Queensboro Oval Field, located along York Avenue under the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan, has been a home to baseball, softball, soccer, football, schools, leagues, families, joggers, and children learning to ride bikes and pick-up recreation activities in a beloved public park. It has been and continues to be a vital resource for countless people. It is the only publicly accessible lit, non-asphalt field available for miles. Even though this community has the least amount of park and open space in the entire city, Mayor Bloomberg and Betsy Smith are attempting to displace children and the community by taking away this park.

Critics of the plan say what began with a 'for profit' tennis club enclosing the park in a bubble for 6 months of the year has morphed over the years to the community losing more and more time as private tennis group has slowly encroached on this community’s public space. The large tennis bubble eventually expanded to 8 months without community consultation or approval.

In an apparent attempt to deflect strong criticism that the community was unaware of the Parks Department's original deal in 2010, Mr. Smith pointed out that they had notified the community board twice of their plans to go to the Franchises and Concession Review Committee (FCRC ).

"no one from the community attended," she wrote.

Her comments are also meant to infer that the public could have somehow influenced the outcome of the obscure mayoral appointed FCRC committee.

Instead of first making a presentation to the community board to gauge interest they instead negotiate and finalized the behind close door deal with the concessionaire and then notified the Board when they were presenting before an obscure - to the general public - mayoral controlled committee. The general public was not made aware of any extension until after the contract had already been signed, some five months after the November 9, 2009 FCRC hearing.

Apparently this is also what they meant by a "fair resolution."

Manhattan Parks Commissioner William Castro publicly stated on several occasions in 2010 that the city would listen to the community in making its determination.

"It's in your face arrogance," CB 8 board member said afterwards. "The city does not have to abide by our feelings."

As justification for the land grab City officials have desperately tried to portray the ballfields as "vasly underutilzed," an assertion that is strongly dismissed by park users.

Preservationists also complain that the unsightly tennis bubble detracts from the landmarked bridge. The National Register of Historic Places added the Queensboro Bridge, also known as the 59th Street Bridge, to the list of City landmarks in 1978.

Parks As Cash Cows

The Bloomberg Administration is increasingly relying on these Parks Department revenue deals to help make up short falls in the city's general budget, while, it should be noted, they continure to allocate a fraction of the funds the agency needs to maintain the parks. The Parks Department is responsible for 91% of all concession revenue collected from city agencies according to the City Comptroller.

According to the City's Independent Budget Office, in November 2011, the Bloomberg Administration introduced another initiative for the parks department to generate $13 million in revenue annually beginning in 2013. Although lacking in specifics, the proposal to generate $13 million in annual revenue is relatively ambitious IBO writes.

Currently, the parks department is responsible for collecting $72.6 million from concessions, fees, permits, and fines (called miscellaneous city revenue). The new proposal would be a 17.9 percent increase over the department’s revenue for 2012.

A proposal to generate $2 million a year from an indoor tennis center at Central Park, introduced at the same time, was also abandoned in November 2010 after public outcry.

No city agency or private group should be allowed to unilaterally make land use significant land use decisions without community participation and consultation. Communities must have meaningful input regarding public lands. Judges have repeated ruled that significant land use designs must go through the proper reviews.

Read More:

Bubble trouble for kids at play
New York Post - April 15, 2012 - By Cynthia R. Fagen

DNAinfo - April 13, 2012 By Amy Zimmer

A Walk In The Park - March 18, 2010 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - February 17, 2010 - By Geoffrey Croft

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