NEW YORK -- The spring and summer of 1990 was reported to be a bit soft for real estate in the Northeast. Commercial properties and residential units have lost as much as 15 percent of their 1988 valuations. But tell that to the U.S. Tennis Association and they will look at you in disbelief.
Opening day of the U.S. Open last Monday set a record for a first day's live gate, and the demand per square foot of stadium court space is still rising. The waiting list for box seats is a political campaign issue here in New York City. The real real estate action, though, comes in 1994 when the lease agreement between the USTA and the city of New York expires. With a gross of roughly $100 million the Open brings to the city, both sides view the stakes as enormous.
The site itself is a little under 1,400 acres in Flushing Meadows Park; aptly named because it was originally a swamp. Water there eventually wound up in Long Island Sound or the Atlantic Ocean. Reclaimed during the Depression, it served as the home of two World Fairs and the Singer Bowl Stadium.
The stadium itself was later renamed for the late jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Serendipitously, former USTA president Slew Hester was landing at nearby LaGuardia airport in 1976 when he looked down and saw the rusting Singer facility just one-quarter mile south of Shea Stadium.
"That's it," he said, "that's what we're looking for."
Twelve years later the USTA is looking for a new television contract and possibly a new venue for the Open. Complaints abound in spite of the soaring demand for tickets. One of the two press elevators was out of order on Tuesday and there is already an overload of media personnel. The facility is difficult to keep clean throughout the day. An Australian television cameraman paraded a copy of a newspaper from 1989 he found under a stadium seat.
Maintenance has always been a problem. This is a publicly-owned facility and is constantly used the other 49 weeks of the year. But there have been improvements: the traffic flow of vehicles outside and of spectators inside has been better. And the staff is bending over backward to accommodate a fickle and demanding pool of players and the always demanding New York public.
The three other venues that make up the game's Grand Slam events -- Wimbledon, Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, Flinders Park in Melbourne, Australia -- are state of the art in amenities, if not in physical facilities. Though it is private, the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon spends enormous amounts each year on improvements. The City of Paris just added 10 more acres at Roland Garros for expansion, and Flinders Park is a brand new complex with a retractable roof over its stadium court.
The National Tennis Center needs another stadium, and the Borough of Queens president Claire Shulman and Mayor David Dinkins are trying to accommodate the USTA. The mayor hosted the USTA Board at an elegant dinner Friday night where he let all concerned know he would do whatever it took -- within reason -- to keep the Open in New York City.
I believe and hope the Open remains in New York because the logistics and planning require on-site administration year-round. The major sponsors are here, the television networks are here, and most important, the USTA knows it can sell out here.
Mayor Dinkins and Gov. Mario Cuomo have had to raise taxes recently as business and the real estate market have softened. Not Flushing Meadows. It's one of those prime spots where demand has already outstripped supply.