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Bocce ball club grapples for Fresh Meadows home

Bocce may be a sport with a millennium of history and a nearly 30-year tradition at Cunningham Park, but park users and the city Parks Department are saying local bocce players need to let go of some traditions and accept a change for the sake of the community.

Members of the Cunningham Park Bocce Association have been complaining to city officials that plans to upgrade an outdated comfort station and do away with the adjoining room they use as a clubhouse will deprive them of their home and inconvenience a vital part of their lifestyle.

Bocce association member Vincent Fuggetta said the upgrade could have been planned in a way that would preserve their small space, where they take refuge on rainy days or gather to chat, watch TV or prepare snacks.

But the Parks Department has offered an alternative site and new bocce courts to the club, and spokeswoman Jane Rudolph said both the department and the community would like the bocce players to accept the compromise. Fuggetta said the club sees the offer as unacceptable, inconvenient and inefficient.

The 70-member club does not pay rent for the current room, which is technically a public space open to all park users that the group has taken over as their clubhouse since the 1980s, Rudolph said. The room is part of a stone building that serves as the main comfort station for the park. The park’s only two bocce courts sit just outside the building, surrounded by benches for spectators and resting players.

Community members have long called for an upgrade to the comfort station, which they complain is old and woefully inadequate for weekend crowds, concerts and daily summer camp use, Rudolph said. The building has six toilet stalls for men and four for women.

“It’s a very old comfort station that is in great need of being completely renovated,” said Martha Taylor, founding chairwoman of Friends of Cunningham Park. She noted that the number of women’s stalls falls far short of meeting daily demands.

Fuggetta said the bathrooms rarely fill up and only pose a problem during New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera performances.

Former City Councilman Sheldon Leffler had originally allocated city funds to build a new comfort station within the park. But community members and representatives of Community Board 8 petitioned to cut costs by improving the existing comfort station rather than constructing a new one, Rudolph said.

Now the Parks Department plans a $1.3 million upgrade that will increase the number of stalls, bring in all new utilities and sewer lines, and make the station accessible to the disabled, Rudolph said. The upgrade requires a physical expansion, meaning the small clubhouse will disappear and be absorbed in the larger bathroom facilities, she said.

“Instead of expanding into our room, why don’t they just expand the station by building out on both sides, because the bathrooms are on both sides of the building?” asked Fuggetta. “There’s other ways we’ve suggested.”

While the bocce club may lose their traditional home, Rudolph said they would not be left homeless: the department has offered to compromise by building four new bocce courts near another public clubhouse in the upper parking lot of the park. She said bocce players could still drive to the other building and have full access during the daytime and on weekends. But they might have to share some space with other community members and organizations, including an after-school program that meets on weekdays, Rudolph said.

“They want to turn around and waste more money by building more bocce courts on the hill, when no one is going to go there,” Fuggetta said. He said the alternate site is too isolated, might attract vandals at night and just would not compare to their traditional site. “It’s very popular here,” he said.

Taylor said the choice came down to a balance of interests, pitting the desires of the bocce club to claim their traditional ground vs. the needs of the rest of the park users for adequate facilities.

“If you weigh it on a scale of positive and negative or needs...I think this is just the logical, fair thing to do,” Taylor said.

And while the club isn’t the type to abandon tradition without a fight, the members may eventually agree to accept the foundation for a new tradition.

A decision made recently may provide a sign of the times: the club, open exclusively to men for more than 25 years, voted this year to allow women to join, Fuggetta said. Now seven women have become members and are allowed to join the boys in the clubhouse. Where that clubhouse will be is still under debate.

Reach reporter Patricia Demchak by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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