Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) wants the D.C. government to pay $3.7 million to help build a Southeast Washington tennis center that has been the pet project of Cora Masters Barry, the wife of Williams's predecessor, Marion Barry.

The tennis center at Sixth Street and Mississippi Avenue SE originally was to be financed with private donations and a federal grant to the city, but those sources have amounted to only about $1.4 million, well short of the estimated $5.1 million needed to build the center.

So the mayor--whose wife, Diane Simmons Williams, is on the board of the nonprofit group Cora Barry founded to raise money for the project--is proposing to use funds left over from four housing and community development programs to make up the difference.

"The Southeast Tennis and Learning Center is a great example of a partnership between District government and [the community] that will introduce many of our young girls and boys to the joy and discipline of tennis," Williams said. "I'm very pleased to help make this wish come true."

The mayor's move--and signals that his office will push the D.C. Council to approve emergency legislation on the matter next week--surprised several council members. They said yesterday that although the tennis center sounds like a worthy project, an emergency funding bill would prevent them from holding hearings on whether the center is the best use for the leftover money.

D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) said yesterday he received a call from the mayor's office this week asking whether he would introduce legislation to help pay for the center. Chavous, who has stressed economic development in deteriorated areas east of the Anacostia River, said he supports the tennis center but, like several council members, said he was not comfortable with the way Williams is trying to snare money for the project.

"I have real concerns about us doing this on an emergency basis without any hearing or discussion," Chavous said.

"Right now I would not be prepared to vote for an emergency [bill] to deal with this," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who also represents some areas east of the Anacostia. "That's not to say they don't need it in Ward 8. . . . I would have preferred a public discussion, so I could have talked to my community in Ward 6 to see what their needs are."

Williams said yesterday that his plan meshes with his efforts to quickly provide recreational alternatives for D.C. youths, particularly those in low-income areas with limited opportunities.

His proposal would remove a major financial burden from the D.C. Recreation Wish List Committee, the nonprofit group Cora Barry created to build the tennis center. The District would own and maintain the center; Barry's Wish List committee would operate it.

The Wish List group continues to raise money to pay for programs at the tennis center, which would be built on a site near Hart Middle School. The group is sponsoring its annual Heart to Hart tennis tournament today at the school's tennis courts.

Cora Barry--whose husband has not been shy about critiquing the new mayor, particularly over how Williams's budget priorities affect low-income residents and city workers--praised Williams for coming to the aid of her project.

"It's a tremendous thing, because we know it will become a reality earlier," she said. "We can save kids.

"Hopefully, people will look at this model and see what we have done--get out, do the work, make the sacrifice and build a true partnership," Cora Barry said. "If the city . . . keeps it as their property, it will never become an exclusive facility that will not serve the population it was built to serve."

The tennis complex would include six outdoor and four covered tennis courts, a fitness trail through Oxon Run Park, a golf driving range, a playground, a health center and locker rooms with showers.

Parks director Robert Newman said the center will provide programs for youths across the city.

"There are so many questions [about] putting it in a black neighborhood before those neighborhoods have had at-risk programs such as drug prevention, teen pregnancy prevention," he said. "But what about after-school programs for kids not committing crimes? By giving them a tennis and learning center, we're raising the bar."