The Globe and Mail: Wimbledon in battle with locals over tennis club’s controversial plan to build 39 more courts
"Wimbledon is usually associated with strawberries and cream, pristine grass and some of the best tennis matches in history. But another high-stakes drama is playing out off the court over a controversial plan to nearly double the size of the historic venue.
Battle lines have been drawn between the private club that’s been home to The Championships for more than 140 years and a group of local residents who oppose plans to build 39 courts on a 29-hectare golf course the club owns. If approved, the project would take about seven years to complete and boost the total number of courts to 80.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club argues that its $340-million expansion, which includes a new 8,000-seat stadium, is critical to keeping pace with the other Grand Slams in New York, Paris and Melbourne. The extra courts will allow the AELTC to hold the Wimbledon qualifying tournament, which currently takes place at a tennis centre it leases in nearby Roehampton. The club also says the development will help local businesses around Wimbledon and generate as many as 300 more full-time and seasonal jobs.
The project has faced stiff opposition from hundreds of people who live near the Wimbledon complex, which is nestled in an affluent suburb in southwest London. They argue the project will ruin the area’s natural heritage and they point out that the golf course is inside the city’s greenbelt, which restricts development. Many residents also question the economic benefits and say the only real winners will be the AELTC’s 375 members.
“It’s just not right,” said Penny Terndrup, who lives a few blocks from the club and is part of the Save Wimbledon Park group. “It’s not right because this has got nothing to do with tennis, really.”
Ms. Terndrup is a retired lawyer who loves tennis and regularly attends Wimbledon. But in her eyes the expansion is too much. “This area will change completely,” she said as she walked through Wimbledon Park, a public park that runs alongside the golf course. “The nature of this community will change.”
She rejected the charge made by some at the AELTC that the residents are just “NIMBYs” opposed to any progress in their backyards. “I think NIMBY applies to sharing a bit more,” she said. “It’s not about making, frankly, some really quite rich people richer.”
Campaigning by both sides has been intense.
The AELTC has flooded homes throughout the neighbourhood with brochures and organized information walks to extol the project’s benefits. “Our proposals will deliver one of the greatest sporting transformations for London since 2012, alongside substantial benefits for the local community,” said AELTC’s chief executive Sally Bolton, referring to the 2012 Olympics.
Save Wimbledon Park has held rallies against the plan and won the backing of the area’s two MPs, one Labour and one Conservative. It also has the support of a dozen residents’ associations and the local chapter of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. An online petition to stop the expansion has generated more than 16,000 signatures.
Getting approval for the development is a complicated process. The proposal straddles two local authorities – Merton and Wandsworth – and the councils have come to opposite conclusions about whether it can go ahead.
Merton’s planning committee voted six to four in October to approve the expansion but last month Wandsworth’s seven-member committee voted unanimously against it. “We could not support the loss of green open space at Wimbledon Park and the loss of mature trees that was at the heart of this application,” said lead councillor Simon Hogg.
The proposal now heads to the Greater London Authority, or GLA, for its decision and it could end up on the desk of Michael Gove, the cabinet minister responsible for local government.
The key hurdle the AELTC must overcome is the greenbelt restriction.
The golf course, which the club fully acquired in 2018, is no longer in use and it sits across the street from the AELTC complex. It’s part of the wider Wimbledon Park green space, which was created in the 1700s. The entire area has been designated Metropolitan Open Land, which means that any development can only be permitted under “very special circumstances”.
The AELTC argues that its plan meets that test. The project includes a park area and walking trails, which will be accessible to the public, as well as improvements to Wimbledon Park’s small lake. The club says that while 291 trees will be removed during construction, it will plant 1,500 more. It will also make seven of the 39 courts available for community use and reserve tickets to 500 seats in the new Parkland Show Court for residents of Merton and Wandsworth to purchase during the tournament.
The club has some community backing. Wandsworth council received close to 300 statements of support for the development.
“Bringing the qualifying tournament into the area has the potential to financially benefit the local retail outlets, restaurants and cafés,” wrote Sarah Watts, who has lived in the community for more than 35 years. Another resident, Sir John Wheeler, wrote that the AELTC and Wimbledon generate huge tax revenue for the country. “It is fundamentally right that it should be able to develop its property for the benefit of its business plan and the wider public interest,” he wrote.
But those comments were dwarfed by the nearly 2,000 submissions against the project.
“It feels sad that a world-renowned tournament that is fondly regarded by the British public and local residents has the potential to become a juggernaut that is threatening to cause environmental destruction in the name of sport,” wrote Frances Jones. Andy Young said the application was “against all logic and stated health measures that a civilized society is expected to comply with.”
Christopher Coombe, a member of the Save Wimbledon Park group, said the AELTC should brace for a long fight. The all-volunteer organization has drawn from a wealth of talent in the community. Mr. Coombe spent 40 years as a lawyer specializing in real-estate projects and the group includes several other experienced lawyers as well as landscape architects, environmental consultants, communications specialists and architects. “We’ve got all the skill sets,” he said with a smile.
The group is open to compromise. Mr. Coombe said Save Wimbledon Park might support a smaller-scale project with about half as many courts. The group also wants guaranteed public access to the new park and walking trails “so that this is not the slippery slope for further development.”
The AELTC hasn’t budged and so the battle rages on, much like a classic Wimbledon tennis match. “Of the five sets without a tie break, we’ve had one each,” Mr. Coombe said, referring to the two council decisions. By his reckoning the GLA is the third set, Mr. Gove the fourth. And the fifth? “I think it ends up in the courts.”
(The Globe and Mail: Wimbledon in battle with locals over tennis club’s controversial plan to build 39 more courts)