A tennis-center expansion in Queens requires a tricky definition of ‘public’

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The National Tennis Center. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Did you know that the National Tennis Center, where Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal ply their trade two weeks a year, is a public space?

Regular New Yorkers can rent courts there for up to $66 an hour. That, the United States Tennis Association argues, makes it public. Which turns out to be an important distinction.

The USTA, which owns the 42-acre Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, wants to expand the center so that it can accommodate 10,000 more spectators. Most of that expansion will involve building upward, not outward, but the USTA does want the Parks Department to commit an additional .68 acres of parkland for the center's permanent use.

Precedent has it that when the city takes public parkland and turns it over to a private entity, that private entity must replace it with new parkland elsewhere.

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But in this case, the Parks Department is making the argument that, because the National Tennis Center is “publicly accessible,” no replacement parkland is necessary.

Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, thinks this is a problem that's bigger than the .68 acres in question here.

“It’s a slippery slope because there’s no kind of definitive definition of how you’re going to define ‘public,’” she said. “If this is going to be considered ‘public,’ then why wouldn’t others try to sell their use as public? I think it’s a very dangerous precedent.”

Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the biggest park in the borough of Queens, but it's probably not the nicest one.

Surrounded by highways that render it inaccessible to the neighorboods that surround it, the park is underfunded and inconsistently maintained, replete with patches of dirt and stagnant water, bottle caps and spindly trees, and Worlds Fair relics that the city has let go to seed. 

The park, as a result of the neglect, is particularly vulnerable to being nibbled away at by land-hungry tenants.

The Wilpon family and Related Companies want to build an enormous mall on its paved-over northern reaches, Major League Soccer wants to take up 13 acres for a new stadium, and the USTA wants to make its 42-acre, gated tennis complex bigger.

Whenever a city in New York State wants to take public parkland and sell or lease it to a private entity, it has to get the state legislature to pass "alienation legislation."

The state recommends, but does not require, that the entity for which the parkland is being alienated replace it with a comparable amount elsewhere.

That's a recommendation the city generally follows.

And that's why Major League Soccer is busy scouring the borough for 13 acres of parkland to make up for the plot it wants to take in the middle of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

That's also why, in 1993, when the USTA expanded its footprint in the park from 21.6 acres to 42, it had to build the 48-acre Powell's Cove Park in College Point, according the Parks Department.

This time, however, the department is not demanding replacement parkland of the USTA. Instead, it's asking for money.

"In this instance, the city is requesting financial compensation to be used for park improvements, instead of replacement parkland, as we believe these improvements will provide more benefit to the users of Flushing Meadows Corona Park," department spokesman Zachary Feder told me, adding, "As part of the alienation process, the legislature will make the final determination on the appropriate criteria for compensation."

Asked how it defines “publicly accessible,” the city sent me over an excerpt from its draft environmental impact statement:

More than 100,000 participants of all ages, the majority of whom are from the local Queens community, participate in hundreds of community tennis programs at the NTC each year. The NTC is home court for more than 70 New York City high schools and colleges and a number of diverse organizations seeking a place to play tennis or host tournaments. USTA offers court rentals to the public at rates calculated under USTA’s lease with the City. The grounds of the NTC are also open 11 months of the year to visitors of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, free of charge. Approximately $1 million is spent each year for other United States Tennis Association tennis programs in New York City as well, including grants for free tennis programs, free equipment, court refurbishments, and scholarships, all supported by revenues from the US Open.

Leicht, the parks advocate, doesn't think this applies.

“I don’t think that the way that the complex interacts with the community at this point makes it public space,” Leicht countered.

Last year, Leicht sent interns to the National Tennis Center to see if they could just wander around the grounds, as the USTA contends the public can, even without paying to use a court.

“They tried to just walk in to access the space and they were stopped and said, ‘Are you here to play?’” she told me. “And they then said, ‘If you pay, we’ll escort you to the court.’”

On Saturday afternoon, I visited Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

It was not, at first blush, clear how to gain access to the National Tennis Center from inside the park.

I walked down a park path that runs along the center's southeast flank and approached what looked like it might be an entrance, only to find a closed gated, bearing a sign reading, “All visitors must register in office."

Ultimately, I found the actual entrance, a glass-clad building called the “Indoor Training Center" and walked inside.

At the front desk, I asked a young woman if I could just wander around.

“Um, our grounds are open," she said.

How do I get to the grounds?

“Through those doors, she said, pointing to another set of glass doors leading out of the lobby. “You can walk around, you can take pictures of Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe, but everything else is locked. The stadiums are locked.”

I walked out the glass doors. I found fast-food concessions, all closed, scores of empty tables, and complete silence. No one else entered the space while I was there.

I snapped a photo of the Arthur Ashe sculpture, returned to the front desk, and asked if I could check out the indoor courts.

I got an escorted tour and a pricing list.

Courts at the U.S.T.A.'s publicly accessible tennis courts range from $22 an hour on weekdays between 6 and 8 a.m., to $66 an hour on weekends, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

That compares favorably to a lot of Manhattan indoor courts, but it's also far more expensive than getting a pass to play on what the city normally defines as public tennis courts.

It costs just $15 to play on regular Parks Department tennis courts, and just $200 for the entire season, unless you're a senior, in which case it costs only $20 per season. If you're younger than 18, it costs only $10. 

"It is significantly more costly than other Parks Department tennis facilities and it is not as open and welcoming to the public as other park space is," Leicht said. "I think it’s disingenuous to say this is a truly public use.”

“It’s not public space,” agreed Michael Rikon, an attorney with experience in land-use matters. “If the public wants to get in there, they’d have to pay a lot of money. ...That’s hardly the same as free access to the community.”

The way the question of publicness is settled in the USTA's case could have broad implications.

Based on the argument put forth by the city and USTA, Major League Soccer could, theoretically, argue that its stadium will be “publicly accessible” because the public will be able to pay to use it when the team isn't.

At least one state official whose cooperation may be needed for the alienation legislation would seem to agree, at this point, with the parks advocates.

“Public green space is a vital part of our community," said Assemblyman Francisco Moya of Corona, in a statement released by the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a group of community organizations opposing the three major projects planned for Flushing Meadows Corona Park. "As the USTA seeks to expand their footprint in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, they should be held to the same standard as everyone else, and replace any parkland that is alienated."

The USTA, for now, is not backing down.

"It’s a public park," said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. "We lease it from the City of New York. We pay rent. It’s open 11 months of the year. ... It’s used primarily by New Yorkers to play tennis."