Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bloomberg funds Randalls Island playpen for rich on city’s dime while nearby East Harlem goes begging

Juan Gonzalez

Sportime tennis center tied to John McEnroe has gotten $8.9 million in city earmarks while adjacent nabe struggles

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Wednesday, January 4 2012, 6:00 AM

  Bahar Kural of Manhattan plays at the Sportime Tennis Center on Randall's Island. The 1 1/2 year old center hosts the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

Craig Warga/New York Daily News

The spiffy, and private, $19 million Sportime tennis center on Randalls Island, connected to court legend John McEnroe, is planning to expand. Neighboring East Harlem has seen its parks deteriorate, but earmarked budget funds from Mayor Bloomberg have added $8.9 million to the club's bottom line since 2005.

EAST HARLEM community leaders are furious about the proposed expansion of a $19 million private tennis center at Randall’s Island that is connected to tennis legend John McEnroe.

Those leaders want to know why Mayor Bloomberg keeps handing barrels of money to the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, the public-private group that manages the 256-acre park.

Since 2003, City Hall has provided an astonishing $155 million for 65 new ballfields, new bike and hiking paths, comfort stations, and shoreline reconstruction at Randalls, and plans to spend another $22 million by 2013, according to the Independent Budget Office.

All that investment has steadily turned the island into an idyllic and isolated playground for affluent New Yorkers who flock to the golf range and the tennis courts, and for private schools that bus their students to the park each weekday to use the sparkling new fields.

Court fees at the two-year-old Sportime tennis center, for example, run from $72 to $102 per hour. And that’s on top of annual fees of $500 to $750.

Meanwhile, improvements for an adjacent East Harlem park languish.

“The East River esplanade in this neighborhood has giant holes in the pavement where residents stare at river swirling below,” said George Sarkissian, district manager of Community Board 11. “As for the E. 107th St. Pier, it is completely dilapidated, yet we’re told there’s no money to fix it.”

Randalls Island Foundation even benefits from special allocations Bloomberg occasionally slips into the budget .

Since 2005, for example, the mayor, a one-time member of Randall’s Island’s high-powered board of directors, has quietly earmarked $8.9 million to the foundation from his discretionary city capital budget allocations.

The mayor’s earmarks have been done so discreetly that even East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the Council’s Parks Department Committee, did not know about them until the Daily News alerted her last week.

“This reaffirms to me the murky element to these private-public partnerships,” Mark-Viverito said.

Over the years, Randall’s Island Foundation has devised an array of privatization schemes — all without meaningful input from the park’s neighborhoods.

Several years ago, the foundation’s effort to lure a private aquatic theme park to Randall’s collapsed. Then its pay-to-play plan, which would have handed 20 Manhattan private schools exclusive use of the park’s renovated ballfields during weekdays — in exchange for $2 million annual payments — was struck down by the courts. Judges ruled twice that Bloomberg failed to give the City Council a chance to vote on the plan.

In 2009, Sportime was granted a 20-year concession for the tennis center, though critics claim that plan, too, should have required City Council approval.

The John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which operates there, charges thousands of dollars for enrollees. McEnroe’s brother Mark McEnroe, the general manager, notes that scholarships and free court time are provided to the community.

“Thanks to Sportime, more tennis instruction, more tennis courts, and more tennis hours are made available to children of the surrounding communities than ever before,” Parks Department spokewoman Vickie Karp said.

You would expect some benefits for the community from a public park.

Mark McEnroe admitted recently his center wants to do a better job of public relations. He and the Randall’s Foundations could start, says Mark-Viverito, by revealing how much money the center is making, and exactly how it will better serve the community.

Randall’s Island, after all, is still a public park, not a private playground.

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