John McEnroe’s Tennis Paradise is Getting Aced

John McEnroe plays at Tennisport so much, he even built his own court there. It sits on a peachy chunk of real estate, too: so close to the East River that a shanked ball-or errant racquet-would likely plunk into the passing water. But Mr.McEnroe’s court (which cost an estimated $40,000 to build) could soon be landfill, if the Empire State Development Corporation proceeds with plans to raze the posh, 33-year-old tennis club where he built it and erect an office complex in its place.

On July 31, the $3,000-a-year club-an oasis for New York’s tennis toffs hidden among the abandoned warehouses and factories of the Long Island City waterfront-will have reached the end of its most recent lease with Queens West Development, a subsidiary of the ESDC. As part of the state’s vision to rezone Long Island City and remake it into an extension of midtown Manhattan-and a tax-rich powerhouse of residential, commercial and potential Olympic development sites-the state acquired the club’s seven waterfront acres at the end of February 2002 by right of eminent domain, culminating a costly, tangled and at times nasty legal battle that lasted more than a decade.

Despite letter-writing campaigns to ESDC chairman Charles Gargano and the work of power broker Howard Rubenstein’s public-relations team, Tennisport’s end now seems almost inevitable. The club, which collects membership dues from Tom Brokaw and World Bank president James Wolfensohn, and regularly hosts such guests as Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Peter Gabriel and Liam Neeson (among others), seems to be eking out the last of its temporary leases.

“Eminent domain should be used to build schools and stuff,” said Mr. McEnroe in a recent interview, fresh off the courts and sitting outside on Tennisport’s patio. “Commercial office space? Come on. Places like this should be preserved.”

The 550-member club’s influential members are now involved in last-ditch efforts to persuade Mr. Gargano to allow Tennisport to stay, and are attempting-largely in vain-to pull strings in New York political circles to underscore their point.

With no prospective tenants in place for the state’s planned commercial complex, and with the continued dwindling of the city’s racquet clubs, Tennisport’s advocates say the state should keep its bulldozers away. But to developers, it’s precisely Tennisport’s resistance that is keeping them from finding tenants for the planned office complex.

The Tennis Gypsy

“This is a perfect example of what a lousy law this is,” Mr. McEnroe said from his perch on the patio, where weekly barbecues bring together tennis enthusiasts from the city’s political, entertainment and sports elites. On a court nearby, a young woman in tennis whites-club policy for anyone playing outdoors-had finished her lesson and watched as her well-tanned instructor collected her hit balls into a hopper.

Surveying these scenes is bittersweet to Tennisport’s 81-year-old owner, Freddie Botur, a lawyer turned tennis fanatic who fled the Czech Republic 50 years ago, traveled to Australia and eventually landed in New York, where he has built tennis facilities ever since. For Mr. Botur, the battle to protect open space for tennis facilities from the strong arm of commercial real estate, development and political interests has defined much of his career.

“I’m a tennis gypsy,” the silver-haired Mr. Botur said from his stool at the Tennisport snack bar.

Mr. Botur leased Tennisport’s land from the Daily News 33 years ago with business partner Heinz Nixdorf, a prominent German industrialist. The site, he said, was a garbage dump then, festering under mountains of rotting debris. He soon bought the land and turned Tennisport into arguably the most luxurious tennis facility in the city. Designed like a European ski lodge, the club has a giant stone fireplace in the center, a big-screen television with close to a thousand channels, an art gallery and a dining room for social affairs. Meanwhile, the men’s locker room carries all the familiar relics of an old-fashioned country club. Cheap aerosol mousse. Hair combs swimming in murky blue Barbicide. Hundreds of white tennis sneakers smeared with red clay.

Wagging his finger in the air as if giving a history lesson, Mr. Botur recalled how, in the early 1960’s, he opened his first club, Tennis Incorporated, in the old armory on 34th Street and Park Avenue. A few years later he moved uptown, building the West Park Racquet Club on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. After that, he moved to Queens, building Cedarhurst Tennis Club on Rockaway Boulevard. But when the state decided to put a highway there, he said, they terminated his lease. The highway never got built; today, that club is a truck-storage facility, he said.

“This is the problem with eminent domain and politics,” Mr. Botur said. “Sometimes [the politicians and developers] change their mind; for us, it’s too late.”

That’s what happened across the river, with last year’s closing of the Wall Street Racquet Club to make way for a planned downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim plan has since been scrapped, and Tennisport’s allies say they’ll be furious if the same senseless fate befalls them.

Former Mayor David Dinkins, a known tennis buff who claims to possess a wicked secret court weapon-a whipping top-spin forehand-and plays Tennisport frequently, sees a trend.

“Tennis is losing big-time in the city, and I wish it weren’t the case,” Mr. Dinkins said from his office at Columbia University, where he teaches public affairs. “Studies show that tennis contributes to longevity, you know?”

Last Sunday at Tennisport, Mr. Dinkins took on another aging court warrior, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who said that until the late 1970’s, she and her husband, labor leader Victor Gotbaum, played at a club in Brooklyn Heights. That’s when Mr. Botur offered the couple a two-for-one membership, and they took it. An early riser, Ms. Gotbaum-who said her power stroke is her backhand-played almost every day in pre–7 a.m. games with film producer and director Amram Nowak, discount designer clothes king Sy Syms and the president emeritus of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Cancer Center, Dr. Paul Marks.

“It’s just silly. I know [ESDC] doesn’t have a tenant-not in this climate,” said Ms. Gotbaum, reached on a cell phone in her black city-funded sedan. “Why throw out something for nothing if you have nothing to put it in its place?”

The answer to many at Tennisport is that the state would rather cut a deal with an out-of-town developer than a tennis club.

While the firm designated to build on the Tennisport site, LCOR Inc., is based in Berwyn, Penn., they have worked in Queens before. In May 1997, the group was part of a consortium that won the bid to rebuild the international-arrivals wing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, at the cost of $1.4 billion. And like most developers, LCOR is no stranger to the city’s highly charged political environment, having made a number of contributions to the election campaigns of Governor George Pataki, who oversees the ESDC, and the office of the Queens borough president, Helen Marshall.

Campaign-finance records show that by March of 2002, LCOR had pumped at least $9,000 into Mr. Pataki’s campaign coffers and an additional $39,000 through different corporate entities. LCOR chairman Eric Eichler personally chipped in an additional $30,700 in 2002-the limit for that year.

In recent years, LCOR executives have been less beneficent to the Democrat Ms. Marshall’s office, but generous nonetheless. Mr. Eichler’s son, Kurt-who, as executive vice president, runs LCOR’s New York branch-cut Ms. Marshall a $200 check in 2001, while senior vice presidents David Sigman and Philip Wharton coughed up $100 apiece. (For his part, Mr. Botur summoned up a $100 donation to the office of Ms. Marshall’s predecessor, Carol Gresser, in 2000.)

“As one of the leaders in the public-private partnerships, LCOR is proud to support candidates who are open to these kinds of projects and understandings,” LCOR spokesman Frank Marino told The Observer .

But the ESDC emphasized that LCOR won out in a competitive bidding process. And, in fact, the state does have plans for the site-plans the ESDC believes will help speed the renewal of Long Island City’s economy. LCOR plans to transform Tennisport into Queensport, a seven-story, state-of-the-art office facility with an all-glass façade, a wooden boardwalk along the riverside and an estimated price tag of $800 million, according to plans and renderings.

The only problem is finding tenants to anchor the commercial development they’ve planned. And the developers chosen to build on the Tennisport site say Mr. Botur is only hampering their ability to find them.

“He’s standing in the way,” said Philip Wharton, a senior vice president at LCOR, which beat out the local firms Triangle Equities and Forest City Ratner in a three-way bidding war that ended in January of 2001.

“In order to make the site marketable, we have to show clear possession, and that’s not happening,” Mr. Wharton continued. “We need a clean slate.”

Nor is the state alone in believing that the redevelopment of the Tennisport site is an important part of revitalizing the Queens waterfront.

A few months ago, Ms. Gotbaum said that some of club’s members contacted her, claiming they were “getting the runaround” with the ESDC. She intervened by placing a call to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, Daniel Doctoroff, often referred to as the city’s Olympics czar.

Mr. Doctoroff, who judges himself an amateur tennis talent, has long envisioned the banks of Long Island City to be ideal digs for Olympic development, should the city get the nod to host the 2012 Olympiad.

“This is going to be a wonderful, exciting 24-hour area, with waterfront parks and a bustling esplanade,” said Mr. Doctoroff in a telephone interview.

Despite some encouraging improvements, like the artsy pedestrian piers nearby, little of that is currently evident. Since Sept. 11, the state has also shifted much of its energy toward ambitious development programs in lower Manhattan and midtown west, which has long been considered Manhattan’s “last frontier” and a key Olympic development area.

Still, Mr. Doctoroff maintains that development plans for Tennisport need to be open at all times, should a prospective tenant decide to make an agreement with LCOR.

“You never know what the timing is going to be,” he said. “We have to preserve the maximum amount of flexibility.”

For the state, the decision to fill Tennisport with commercial office space comes down to cost per foot, and they’re optimistic about finding a tenant soon.

“The same reason why Tennisport is attractive to its members is the same reason it’s attractive to us,” said Alex Dudley, spokesman for the ESDC. “The unfortunate problem with tennis is that it takes up a lot of room for only two people.”

McEnroeport?

In the men’s locker room at Tennisport, Jesus Pena, a jovial 70-year-old Peruvian man with big eyeglasses, takes care of the guests. He’s been stationed in Tennisport’s locker room for the last quarter of his life. He doesn’t mind much at all.

“The money is good,” he said.

No wonder: It’s hard to pass Mr. Pena without leaving a tip, and his desk is filled with everything a racqueteur might desire, from shoe polish to nostril clippers to pulpy Spanish cowboy magazines, which he reads when members aren’t pestering him for more towels. He doesn’t want to see Tennisport move.

And it’s not just a matter of the income: If Tennisport closes, he’ll move back home to retire a wealthy man.

“This is my life; these are all my friends,” he said. “John McEnroe is my friend.” (But Patrick McEnroe-John’s younger brother, who is also a honorary member-is the better tipper, he said.)

And Mr. Pena’s friends may be Tennisport’s last resort. The ESDC has not entirely ruled out accepting a Hail Mary proposal from Tennisport’s advocates, which could keep tennis in Long Island City and also satiate Queens West’s appetite for long-term economic growth. The ESDC, Mr. Dudley said in a seeming challenge to Mr. Botur and his allies, remains open to “any and all proposals or ideas,” and while LCOR remains the “designee” for the site, anything is still possible.

Though Mr. Botur has focused his efforts on shopping around for other sites, he maintains his primary interest is preserving “his baby” and “keeping the tennis alive.”

Mr. McEnroe, whose private Tennisport court boasts a fast hard-top surface (though a continuing clubhouse joke is that his 44-year-old knees are creaky, and he is often seen bringing his feisty game to the more forgiving clay his clubmates play on), has considered upgrading his investment in the club in a bid to keep it alive. Mr. McEnroe has often spoken of his longtime dream of creating his own tennis academy-“a sort of nonprofit kind of thing,” he told The Observer -that would make tennis more accessible to city kids, and save Tennisport into the bargain.

“It would be a kind of way for me to give back to the sport,” Mr. McEnroe said.

Mr. Botur’s daughter Andrea, who runs operations at Tennisport, said that this seems like a long shot. She and her father and Mr. McEnroe have tried many times to come up with a formula that would preserve Tennisport and appeal to Queens West’s development team at the same time, but the bottom line for Queens West is that the courts just take up too much valuable turf.

“McEnroeport,” a celebrity-driven, public-interest tennis academy that offers free court time to children from public schools and sponsors local tournaments, would certainly attract some local business. But likely not enough to satisfy the ESDC.

“There’s no room for tennis in their plan,” Ms. Botur said. “The club is not like a Laundromat, something you can move and replicate.

“It’s something that took my dad 50 years to build it, and whooof! -it’s gone,” she added dolefully. “You take away a man’s life that way. That’s a balance you just can’t equate.”