It Takes a Tennis Village

During redevelopment, uncertainties persist about the use of former public housing land

To call XS Tennis Village, a 112,000 square foot, $9.8 million facility to be opened on the corner of 54th and State in Washington Park, simply a tennis center would be shortsighted. It’s clear from XS Tennis and Educational Foundation’s mission for the village, which will break ground this year, that the educational component of the name is just as important as the tennis.

There will be plenty of tennis involved: the village will include eight full-size indoor courts, nineteen full-size outdoor courts, plus ten total indoor and outdoor courts for children ten and under and numerous tennis programs serving both children and adults. But XS Tennis Village, which will stand on land that used to hold the Robert Taylor Homes, also aims to play the role of a community center; XSTEF has pledged to offer academic support, test prep, and mentoring for its young athletes in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project, as well as nutrition and wellness education for children and adults.

Yet in making its new home on former Chicago Housing Authority land, the Tennis Village project has also walked into the debate over what the use of such land should be, a topic important to former public housing residents waiting for the replacement of public housing units that the CHA demolished as part of the city’s Plan for Transformation, which began in 2000.

XSTEF, which began simply as XS Tennis in 2005, already operates out of a facility on 47th Street in Kenwood, but according to the organization’s website, its lease is expiring and the facility is too small for XSTEF’s current needs. XSTEF dreamt big for its new facility and managed to secure partnerships with both the CHA and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In 2013, the CHA voted to sell some of the former Robert Taylor Homes land to XSTEF for the Tennis Village, and in November 2014—after already announcing the Tennis Village to the public in May—Emanuel said he would use $2.9 million in Tax Increment Financing funds to contribute to site preparation expenses for Tennis Village.

“Chicago’s XS Tennis is the largest, most successful minority-owned tennis organization in the nation,” reads the May 2014 city press release. XSTEF’s website boasts impressive stats: it runs afterschool programs, summer programs, and operates free in-school tennis programs in ten Chicago Public Schools—serving close to 3,000 youth from underserved communities in Chicago. (According to the press release, XSTEF will increase involvement in CPS from ten schools to twenty with the opening of Tennis Village.)

Of participants in the afterschool tennis program, supported by its academic enrichment programs, XSTEF says on its website that “100% have received full tennis college scholarships,” and achieved “100% college graduation rates.” One XS Tennis player, Taylor Townsend, became the top junior in the world, went on to play professionally at sixteen years old, and recently received attention for propelling herself into the third round of the 2014 French Open, beating out two higher-ranked players.

But in selling land to Tennis Village, the CHA drew the ire of activists like Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, which focuses on leadership and community organizing in Bronzeville. Wilson has no problem with the idea of the Tennis Village, but is concerned that the CHA might use more land for functions other than housing before providing it for those displaced by public housing demolitions under the Plan for Transformation.

“I think the point we were making was that before they could give up any public housing land for some type of commercial development, they should make a plan for replacing housing,” Wilson said. According to him, the CHA had pledged to “bring back” 800 of the 4,400 housing units that the Robert Taylor Homes had provided, but so far has only come up with around 300.

“I don’t have anything against the tennis program. It sounds like a noble idea—my issue is with [the CHA] saying ‘I’ll give you one thing,’ and giving [us] something else,” he said. The CHA did not respond by press time when contacted for comment.

In addition to providing fitness and academic opportunities for community members, XSTEF pledges to provide $800,000 in jobs for CHA residents and $1.8 million in scholarships for CHA youth at Tennis Village, a hint that XSTEF is not ignorant of the history of its new location, nor of its detractors.  XSTEF’s mission is “to provide Chicago’s underserved youth with an enriching safe-haven and positive academic/athletic pathway to college through a community-based sports and academic enrichment program.” But it’s hard for the frustrated public housing community to laud even a community tennis facility when much of the housing promised by the CHA is still missing.

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