Monday, September 20, 2010

TDR + Landmarking Has Potential For Saving The Forest Hills Tennis Stadium

Famed Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, 9/4/10 photo by Michael Perlman
Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, "Queens as Natural Playground of NYC," Queensborough, Page 2, July 1932, Courtesy of Queens Chamber of Commerce
Below is a 9/16/10 letter to the editor of the Queens Tribune, by John L. Gann, Jr, President of Gann Associates, who is a marketing consultant of preservation regulations and land use ordinances for a number of U.S. cities. Rego-Forest Preservation Council endorses his appeal, since the marriage of Landmark status + Transferable Development Rights (TDR) for the iconic yet endangered Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, could very well result in a win-win for the West Side Tennis Club and the greater American and International supporters:

To The Editor:
In the center ring of the tennis world at the moment is another U.S. Open. Off to one side is some action reported in these pages that could be of much greater consequence to the legacy of the sport. The Open's traditional home, the shuttered 1923 West Side Tennis Club stadium in Forest Hills, may not survive.

Unused for matches since 1978, the stadium has decayed despite a brief second life as a concert venue. The Club is to vote Sept. 23 on sale of the property to developer Cord Meyer for a reported $9 million for redevelopment in condominiums.

It is zoned for residential and not protected as an historic landmark by New York City law. Although the developer says it will preserve the historic stadium fa├žade, city regulations would not legally bar its demolition, nor, it seems, would the private covenants of the elite Forest Hills Gardens community. The Tennis Industry Association has endorsed landmarking, and political leaders from the area have asked the city to study the feasibility of such designation.

With good reason. Tennis history in the United States has a name: Forest Hills, the Wimbledon of the New World. The upscale sport has made Forest Hills the only neighborhood in this oft-ignored borough known around the globe. No surprise that the community is probably the most sought-after place to live in Queens.

Tennis put Forest Hills on the map and gave it a classy brand. And just as with consumer products, an esteemed brand is a value-enhancing economic asset to a neighborhood and its residents and property owners. The Forest Hills tennis brand may be worth a lot more than just a few more housing units in an already crowded part of the city. Every residential neighborhood in New York has housing. Only one has a revered historic tennis center.

Smart companies are reawakening to the economic value of the brands that helped make them successful. ExxonMobil has revived its decades-old flying red horse with that in mind. Viewed in terms of the value of branding, the movement to save the stadium is more than just nostalgic sentimentality.

Understandably, the Tennis Club has not sought landmark status that might limit its options. Ordinances that bar demolition or substantial alteration of historic buildings have raised serious property rights issues in New York and elsewhere when they in effect ask private property owners to pay for the benefit to the public of continuing to enjoy an undisturbed historic building. But without such protections, cities can lose irreplaceable treasures like the predecessor of today's Penn Station, the demolition of which energized historic preservation in this city.

There is, however, an as yet little-noted win-win solution that New York invented. It has been used to preserve historic structures, open spaces and environmental areas nationwide while keeping property owners whole.

Transferable Development Rights (TDR) can move the development potential defined by the zoning of such properties to another site and allow the property owner to be compensated for the loss. Landmark the stadium, build the number of new homes allowed on its site somewhere else, and pay the Tennis Club what they would have realized from the sale for redevelopment. The stadium could then neither be razed nor otherwise developed but might be devoted to neighborhood-compatible low-intensity uses.

TDR can be complex to work out. But even in crowded New York, there are other places for more housing. There's only one Forest Hills. Retaining the visible evidence of decades-long association with an upscale sport by a place with an international reputation may be a better bet economically than building on its few remaining square feet of open land.

A player who loses at the Open can come back. A venerated historic building that is lost cannot. Holding off on a sale to consider TDR and other uses a rehabilitated stadium could be put to might be the best course. More housing is surely the least imaginative solution to the future of a very special place.

John L. Gann, Jr.,

John L. Gann, Jr., President of Gann Associates, has prepared historic preservation regulations and other land use codes for Cleveland and other cities and now consults on marketing cities. He is a graduate of Forest Hills High School.

Rego-Forest Preservation Council Photoset featuring Stadium, Clubhouse, Memorabilia -

Iconic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium: Gallery 1 featuring Joe Shlabotnik/Peter Dutton's photos -

Iconic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium: Gallery 2 featuring Joe Shlabotnik/Peter Dutton's photos -

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