By Alex Israel
A popular set of public tennis courts in Riverside Park has increasingly been monopolized by an enterprise operating expensive tennis lessons and clinics, leaving local tennis players unable to get court time, according to multiple players who spoke to the West Side Rag.
The 96th Street Clay Tennis Courts, also known as the Oscar Hijuelos Clay Courts, are the only public, outdoor red-clay courts in Manhattan. The ten-court facility is currently operated by the Riverside Clay Tennis Association (RCTA), a private non-profit contracted and wholly owned by the Riverside Park Conservancy (RPC), also a private non-profit. RPC partners with the City of New York—specifically the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks)—to oversee operations throughout Riverside Park, and is free to contract additional organizations and vendors as it sees fit.
According to RPC’s website, the RCTA was initially formed in the 1990s to facilitate the transformation of the courts in “deplorable condition” to the “magnificent public red-clay facility that exists today” through petitioning and lobbying of local politicians. Since then, a team of RCTA volunteers and staff have worked to maintain the courts, which require more attention than others with asphalt or concrete surfaces.
While no one has protested the quality of the upkeep, some local tennis players say that the courts have become oversaturated with paid programming over the last few years, and worry that a similar dynamic will play out at Riverside Park’s hard courts at 119th street, which they have turned to as an alternative.
The RCTA’s website lists more than 85 separate sessions of individual and group programming at the 96th Street courts between April through August, falling on every day of the week and ranging from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. That doesn’t include the kids’ camp that runs from June through August from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or any private lessons that are scheduled outside of the pre-set sessions.
Lester Schulman, an Upper West Side resident for fifty years, used to use the 96th street courts often, as he found them to serve as “excellent resources for an aging demographic” due to the clay’s forgiving nature and ease on the body. But by his account, programs implemented over the last four years “took up all the courts during the daytime hours,” making it nearly impossible for him to get time there.
According to Lou Seitchik, a local tennis player and donor to Riverside Park, 96th Street became so crowded that he stopped attempting to walk on. “It’s hard to get on, it’s so full of lessons and teachers … even during the day and during the week,” he said. “In our point of view, the courts are supposed to be for the permit holder, not for what appear to be profit-making operations.”
Jeff Cohen, a self-proclaimed “tennis addict” whose career as a theater director and playwright allows him to play tennis during the daytime, believes the RCTA “has instituted a ‘profit scheme’ at the 96th Street courts.” In his experience, “at any one time, as many as 60% of the courts are used by the RCTA for-pay programs.”
A month into the season, the RCTA was still working to resurface three of the ten public courts at 96th Street. One Sunday last month at 3 p.m., it appeared that two of the seven open courts were being used for paid lessons—leaving five available for public use. These five open courts remained busy with players for the next few hours.
The RCTA and NYC Parks, however, refute the complaints, saying that there are often a majority of courts available for public use. “We always try to have seven courts available for walk-on play,” said Mark McIntyre, the Executive Director of the RCTA, in a phone interview with West Side Rag. He says this sometimes means his team will block out reservations for one or two courts at a time to ensure they are available for walk-on players to use. But according to McIntyre, “there are some periods of time where it’s just so dead, it doesn’t really matter.”
In response to concerns about the RCTA’s busy programming schedule, McIntyre estimated that lessons take up 15% of all the court availability. “The camp doesn’t take away anything from the public … We don’t use very much of the total availability of public court time for programming, and when we do it is primarily during non-peak times—and there’s usually empty courts during that time.” McIntyre believes that even if the RCTA didn’t host camp on the courts, they’d be “deserted.” “Nobody plays in June, July, and August,” he said.
A statement from NYC Parks via email with West Side Rag provides the same estimate. “NYC Parks recently conducted an audit of the 96th St. tennis courts, only 20 of the 140 operational hours are used by programming. We are confident that Riverside Park Conservancy’s operation of the 96th Street Courts is not displacing public access.” Their observation on Thursday, May 10 at 5 p.m., showed that “the courts were empty except for children, and there were no walk-up sign ups/requests to play otherwise.”
However, in an email blast from May 1, McIntyre seemed to address some crowding during the month of May. The email outlines the process for resurfacing the remaining three courts and asks that visitors avoid playing in the afternoon due to a “court squeeze” driven by for-pay programming. “This week, we start our Junior Ace programs in the 4 and 5 o’clock hour, so during those times there will be a court squeeze until we get all of the courts finished. Again, please bear with us and, if possible, avoid those late afternoon hours Monday through Friday,” writes McIntyre.
McIntyre says that his team closely monitors the usage of the courts, and suggested that he has records to back up his and NYC Parks’ assertions of the breakdown between public use and for-pay programming. However, at the time of publishing, he has not shared that raw data with West Side Rag.
According to the NYC Parks Concessions Directory, many other courts, including in Central Park and in Riverside Park at 119th Street, have a vendor who is licensed as the single concession for that location. In a past iteration of the Tennis Pro contract available via public record, it stated that these vendors were licensed to only operate on one court at a given time. This had prevented an abundance of paid programming from becoming an issue at 96th Street—until the single vendor operation was “abolished” when the RCTA officially took over management of the programming in 2006, according to Cohen.
A portion of the NYC Parks Tennis Pro Vendor contract from 2012 states the City rules for instructional play, including rate limitations. According to the RCTA website, all private lessons with any of the RCTA pros are currently priced at $70 per hour. RCTA group lessons can get up to $75 per session depending on age and skill level.
But public concerns go beyond the lack of court availability. Several people interviewed for this article said they take issue with the lack of transparency provided by the RCTA and the RPC in their operations of these public facilities.
“I understand they need a certain amount of money for upkeep, which they do a good job of,” Schulman said. “But how much is assigned to just maintenance and how much is assigned to the people who run it?” he asked.
Cohen says he has made repeated attempts to open up a dialogue with RCTA, RPC, NYC Parks, and other City offices about his concerns with the courts, but says that those entities have been “unresponsive,” if not outright “unfriendly.” “Complaints were either ignored or no action was taken,” said Cohen.
Local players are also concerned with what appears to them as a lack of governance on behalf of the NYC Parks—or as Schulman put it, the transfer of “public land into private hands.”
Whether or not a majority of the courts are booked for structured programming, “the problem is one of priorities,” he said. “[RCTA] programs are the priority and everyone else has to adjust and take a back seat.”
“It seems like the Conservancy can do whatever it wants,” said Seitchik. “Are the courts being used for the purpose that the Parks Department says they’re supposed to be used for?” he asked.
Within the most recent iteration of the contract between NYC Parks and RPC, obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from one of the concerned players, there is no clause that explicitly calls for them to host classes and lessons—but there is also no clause that bars them from doing this.
According to the document, which was set to expire in March 2018, RPC was contracted to use “the revenue generated from the Courts’ fees towards the maintenance, upkeep, and operation of the Courts.” The only court fee explicitly listed in the contract was for the standard amount of a single-play permit on the spot ($15 a person) if a guest does not already possess either a full-season permit or a pre-printed single-play permit. Full-season tennis permits in New York cost $100 and allow people to play at dozens of courts throughout the city.
Requests to see an active contract were denied by NYC Parks and McIntyre. A NYC Parks representative shared that they are “currently negotiating a new agreement with RPC, so we can’t yet comment on what RPC’s contractual obligations will look like in a new agreement.” RPC did not respond to a request for comment.
McIntyre said that the for-pay programming is the RCTA’s biggest moneymaker. On the RCTA’s ‘About’ page, they claim to raise over $650,000 in annual revenue. McIntyre estimated the revenue breaks down as follows:
NYC Park Fees: 20-25% (approximately $130,000 – $162,500). This includes the cost of aforementioned full-season permits and single-play permits.
Non-profit Fundraising: 20–25% (approximately $130,000 – $162,500). This is made up of donations and membership dues directly to RCTA.
RCTA Programming: 50-60% (approximately $325,000 – $390,000). This encompasses the line-up of paid events, including summer camps as well as private and group lessons for children and adults.
He also offered an overview of how the revenue gets redistributed, breaking the RCTA’s budget out into three categories and loosely estimating costs associated with each. According to McIntyre, “labor is the biggest expense,” with employee salaries making up an estimated 60% of the budget.
Maintenance & Operations: This category includes the cost of salaries for one full-time employee exclusively for maintenance, and two full-time employees who split their time between maintenance and operations. It also includes the annual cost of materials, which McIntyre estimated at between $70,00 and $100,000. (It’s difficult to say whether this estimate is high or low for the industry. A quick look at one local vendor’s wholesale prices allowed West Side Rag to estimate a cost of around $45,000 in surfacing materials for ten clay courts throughout a single season. Our estimate for one court breaks out as follows: 30 tons of red clay – which packs in at approximately 1″ – at $135 per ton, plus two tons of top dressing at $160 per ton, plus 500 lb of Magnesium Chloride flakes at $23 per 50 lb bag. Beam Clay and several other red clay vendors did not respond to requests for more information.)
Programming: This budget category includes the cost of a salary for one full-time Director of Programming.
Administration: This category includes the cost of administrative expenses, estimated at 15% (approximately $97,500)—“pretty good for a non-profit,” according to McIntyre. (Charity Navigator considers between 0 and 10 percent of total functional expenses spent on management/general the ideal metric for community foundations.)
McIntyre did not disclose where his salary falls within the RCTA budget (if at all), or how much he, or any of the employees, are paid. Typical public tennis courts in the city are staffed by NYC Parks employees. The full staff list for the 96th Street clay courts can be found on the RCTA website. A parks employee also checks permits at the 96th Street courts.
While the previous NYC Parks contract with RPC only allotted the 96th Street courts to the RCTA, the future of the 119th Street courts is uncertain—much to the dismay of the players who have flocked there to steer clear of the busy programming schedule at 96th Street.
McIntyre said that he has been brought on in his capacity as an employee of RPC to advise on some administrative challenges faced by the 119th Street Tennis Association (119TA), a user group which falls under RPC’s jurisdiction.
Initially, he was “helping with the paperwork” to facilitate the allocation of a $125,000 grant procured through Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell to resurface those courts—which has been in limbo for at least three years, according to the regular players, as well as a reference in a New York Daily News article from 2015. McIntyre also says that 119TA recently chose to spend some of their revenue on staffing their gate similarly to 96th Street, so they tapped him to help with logistics.
According to McIntyre, the NYC Parks contract renegotiation with RPC will likely give them more jurisdiction, which would include formally transferring over the responsibilities for maintenance/operations and programming of the 119th Street Courts to RPC. If and when that contract takes into effect, the existing NYC Parks Concession would not be renewed when it expires at the end of this season, and RPC would be able to manage vendors however they choose—like they currently do at 96th Street.
It remains to be seen whether this volley between the public community and the private non-profits responsible for managing the facilities will continue through the 2018 tennis season, which officially began in mid-April.
“I know that it’s not the biggest thing in the world,” said Cohen. “But we pay our park permit, and we just want to play tennis.”
Photos by Alex Israel.