‘There is no reason to be intimidated by the U.S.T.A.’

The National Tennis Center. (llee_wu via Flickr)
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Among the more than dozen people who bothered to turn out at a Queens nursing home on Tuesday evening to talk to a community board about the United States Tennis Association's request for another piece of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the opposition was unanimous.

"I want you to know that Pat Dolan is rolling over in her grave right now," said Beverly McDermott, a petite, grey-haired woman with a bandage over her nose. "She could never have put up with what’s going on here in her park, in her community."

McDermott, who heads a civic group that advocates for nearby Kissena Park, was referring to the former president of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Conservancy, who was killed in 2011 when she was hit by a car.

"It must be said loudly and clearly that we must not relinquish an inch for development," she said, raising her voice.

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In 1993, when the U.S.T.A. wanted to double the size of its footprint to 42 acres in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which is the largest park in Queens, the city required the U.S.T.A. to make up for it by building a new park elsewhere.

Today, the U.S.T.A. wants to expand its National Tennis Center again. While most of that expansion would involve building upward, rather than outward, it is also requesting that the city turn over another .68 acres of parkland permanently, and, to make way for a new road, cut down more than 400 trees.

The U.S.T.A. doesn't want to have to replace parkland this time, and argues it shouldn't be required to. The association's argument is that even though the land in question will have to be alienated and state precedent is that all alienated land must be replaced, the .68 acres will remain "publicly accessible," much as the rest of the gated complex is, theoretically.

It's a strained argument, according to State Senator Tony Avella, whose district borders the park.

Yesterday, he submitted written testimony to Community Board 7 in which called the U.S.T.A.'s argument "disturbing," in part because playing tennis at the National Tennis Center is far more expensive than playing tennis at what is normally considered a "public" Parks Department facility. 

At the National Tennis Center, rates range from $22 to $66 per hour, depending on whether you want to play before 8 a.m. on a weekday, or between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a weekend.

Parks Department public courts, by comparison, cost no more than $15 an hour, or no more than $200 per season.

"Their facility is neither affordable nor accessible to the regular park users of Flushing Meadows Corona Park," wrote Avella.

And then there's that slippery-slope question, enunciated last night by James Yolles, who works for the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks: "If an expensive pay-to-play tennis facility that contributes no annual funding to the park is deemed 'public,' where is the line drawn to protect city parkland from privatization?"

Tomorrow, a community board committee will vote on the U.S.T.A. proposal.

It's one of several community boards that will register an opinion on the matter. Those opinions are purely advisory, which may be why the U.S.T.A. didn't bother sending anyone to testify last night.

I emailed U.S.T.A. spokesman Chris Widmaier this morning. He had no immediate comment.

In January, Widmaier said, of the tennis complex, "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."

The tennis-center expansion is one of three projects the Bloomberg administration is planning for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The city is also backing a Major League Soccer proposal to put a soccer arena in the park, and a separate proposal to build a mall next to Citi Field on a parking lot that is also technically parkland.

Last night, at the meeting in a nursing home room covered in gold and silver streamers, a Jackson Heights retiree named Jacqueline Sung delivered testimony that she described as "short and sour."

“To my eye, parkland is owned by the citizens of the city of New York," she said. "If somebody comes into your home who happens to be a thief, which I think this is ... do you negotiate with them about what they're going to take?" 

Ben Haber, another Queens retiree, put it another way.

"There is no reason to be intimidated by the U.S.T.A.," he said. "Do not be concerned that if you say no, the U.S.T.A. will move out of the park. Greedy they are, but not stupid."