Bubble Trouble for Tennis Courts

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A proposal to construct a bubble over the courts, which would eliminate free use during the off-season, is drawing criticism from frequent court users.

The bubble would be in place from November to April, allowing people to play comfortably throughout the colder months, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation. But some court users are concerned that construction of the bubble will affect the upcoming summer tennis season, and they are wondering why the proposal has not yet appeared in a public forum.

Council Member Gale Brewer wrote a letter to the Parks Department and to the Central Park Conservancy on behalf of concerned constituents.

“There are many people who play tennis [on those courts],” Brewer said in an interview. “They feel very strongly about the tennis courts, take good care of them, love the sport, and love playing there.”

As of Feb. 1, the letter had not yet received a response, but Brewer’s office said the Parks Department did reach out to Community Board 7, which is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its Feb. 11 Parks and Preservation Committee.

Several years ago, Board 7 ruled against a similar proposal for a tennis bubble over the courts in Riverside Park, near West 96th Street. That proposal was vetoed partly because it included an increase in the rates that players would pay to use the space.

Currently, the Parks Department allows free play during the off-season in the Central Park courts. Adding a bubble would introduce a fee that is still under negotiation, but hourly rates at similar indoor tennis facilities range from $28 to $56, depending on the day and time.

A number of tennis buffs do brave the cold and play for free. Marlys and Bill Ray, who were playing in 33-degree Feb. 1, have a yearly $20 senior permit to play tennis during the regular season. When winter comes, they move outdoors for free.

“We’re hoping, whatever they do, they will not affect the all-weather courts,” Marlys Ray said. “I’d rather play outdoors. It’s more fun. Once you move around, it’s lovely.”

Cristina DeLuca, a spokesperson for the department, explained that the department has not yet gone public with the proposal because it is still in early stages, with contract negotiations just beginning. The department issued a request for proposals (RFP) in March 2009 and has identified the successful contractor. Per department policy, DeLuca said the contractor could not be identified until negotiations are finalized.

“The idea to construct a tennis bubble in Central Park is one we have considered for a number of years,” she wrote in an email. “Constructing a bubble over the courts enables us to provide increased recreational activities in the park during the winter and [to provide] revenue for the city.”

DeLuca said that bubble construction would not affect the summer tennis season: the project would begin mid-November 2010 and end late March 2011. Once the basic bubble structure has been added, it could be converted quickly for indoor or outdoor play. The bubble would not affect the cost of using the courts in the summer, which is $100 per year for adults or $7 for a day pass.

“In the winter, when the courts are not available to the public, the concessionaire will bubble the courts and charge a fee for the use of the indoor courts,” she said.

This is the same policy that exists at other indoor tennis facilities that the department operates. Moreover, other outdoor tennis facilities in Manhattan would still be available for free play during winter months.

DeLuca said that a hearing will probably be held this spring, and a draft contract will be available for public review prior to the hearing.

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