Tennis Courts

Over the course of the two-three years prior to the Board's 2003 vote to move the Main Gate tennis courts, a number of tennis playing Chautauquans were informally consulted by board members and the administration for their opinions and ideas regarding the concept of replacing the old public tennis courts with private housing and building new courts elsewhere. Time and again the tennis playing community expressed its desire that the courts remain in their location adjacent to the Main Gate. Their input fell on deaf ears.

Indeed, as rumors circulated that the Institution's powers-that-be were going to proceed with the plan, the Tennis Association itself expressed its unified voice in the form a 2003 letter, signed by more than 300 tennis playing Chautauquans, urging the Institution to not move the courts to a new location. So there was no mistaking the will of Chautauquans themselves; particularly those Chautauquans who regularly utilized that public space.

By (1) cushioning a new housing development with a "public" garden that replaces the three oldest tennis courts; and (2) by replacing the remaining five courts with a web of asphalt access roads that will wrap around a non-public array of private homes, this project provides a perfect model for privatizing a heavily utilized public space.

It severs the unobstructed open tract of public space that used to run unimpeded from the Main Gate on through the practice shack area. And it replaces the relative transparency of a roadside fence with the concealing barrier of a fake brick wall.

For years, many Chautauquans would regularly travel to the old site to play tennis. Will any Chautauquans will now go out of their way to travel uphill to a garden situated just yards from Route 394 and adjacent to the Main Gate? At the Institution's expense, the few families who purchase the "Garden District" lots will enjoy a quiet little buffer of green space separating them from the broad expanse of asphalt that surrounds the Main Gate. Most tennis players will enjoy an additional ½ mile of uphill travel to a new set of courts that sport views of Turner's backside and the bus garage.

The justifications for relocating the tennis courts were fluid. As Chautauquans got wind of the project and countered each official rationale, a new one arose. The final explanation goes something like this: "we wanted to make the tennis courts part of a sports complex centered around the gym, pool, locker rooms and other facilities of the former Turner school." Should you find yourself at all persuaded by this particular argument, please keep in mind that the original plan was to move the tennis courts across Route 394 to a site that was nowhere near Turner. The decision to move the courts came first. The official "where" and "why" were settled upon later. As the location of the new courts and the explanations for their move mutated over time, one aspect of the overall plan never wavered: the conversion of the old tennis courts into private building lots.

With so many other important and costly Institution issues agitating for attention, how did this development plan manage to maintain its relentless grip upon the time, imagination and resources of the administration? Why did the administration obstinately forge ahead with this project against the wishes of the tennis playing community and despite the inability to sell enough sites to do more than break even financially? Who truly profits from this venture?

So, in a couple years of hawking these potential properties, the Institution has had to give variances to several properties that deviate from the original single family dwelling mandate. Not surprisingly, the lots nearest Route 394 remain unsold. On the basis of that dubious endorsement of this project, a piece of Chautauqua history was wiped out in a deal that fails to realize a net profit for the Institution. The costly construction of the new tennis courts coupled with the considerable expense of developing the infrastructure of this new housing district has eaten up any possible capital the Institution might have generated.

Therefore, now we have new tennis courts, isolated on a windy hilltop that is well removed from most of the ambience of Chautauqua itself. Whereas tennis players used to hear opera singers, pianos and French horns blending with the music of Route 394, they now hear only the plaintive strains of Route 394. Further from the heart of the grounds . . . closer to the north shore condo developments. Was this a worthwhile trade-off? How can Chautauqua avoid such trade-offs in the future?


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