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Plans unveiled to expand National Tennis Center

Rendering of the renovations planned for the Billie

Rendering of the renovations planned for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, showing Arthur Ashe Stadium (top center), Louis Armstrong Stadium (to the right of Ashe), the Grandstand (bottom left, formerly located next to Armstrong) and Court 17 (bottom right). Credit: Handout

U.S. Open tennis officials will let a $500-million expansion plan be their umbrella for the foreseeable future, unveiling a strategic vision that includes a new Grandstand, enlarged No. 2 court and more open space at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

But the six-to-eight-year project, with construction targeted to begin in the fall of 2013, does not contain what many observers long have believed to be the must-have amenity for any modern-day sports facility.

"The obvious question that will come is, 'What about a roof?' " USTA CEO Gordon Smith acknowledged during a power-point briefing Thursday. "We simply do not have a roof design that works at this time."

Because the last four Open championship finals have been postponed a day by rain, the old debate about erecting a cover over the tennis center's show court, 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, has intensified. And Smith said the search for a solution will go on.

"But the problem is that the stadium, as currently designed, will not hold the weight of even the lightest of current roof designs," Smith said. "The only way to do anything now is to build a building over a building, and that's not only an architectural abomination, it's phenomenally expensive."

Danny Zausner, managing director of the tennis center, cited the "sheer size of the opening" over Ashe, which is the world's largest tennis stadium, "and the fact the land conditions there are nothing short of atrocious."

To put a roof over Louis Armstrong Stadium, the No. 2 court, has been considered, but Zausner pointed to the impossibility -- in the event of rain -- of moving 23,000 fans from Ashe into Armstrong, which currently seats 10,000.

A new Armstrong, the last piece of the strategic vision, will seat 15,000 and will be designed for a future roof -- but would be covered only if Ashe had a roof. To replace Ashe, Smith said, also has been discussed, but the stadium is only 15 years old and "probably has 30 years of useful life left in it," and replacement would cost in the vicinity of a billion dollars.

"There's just not an economic case to be made for building a roof" at Ashe, Smith said.

The USTA will go ahead with "pretty much a complete overhaul" of the grounds that Smith said would alleviate spectator congestion and allow for bringing in an additional 10,000 fans a day for the two-week tournament, which has been drawing more than 700,000 in recent years.

The blueprint calls for replacing the current Grandstand, which is attached to Armstrong, with an administration and retail building; erecting a new Grandstand -- with an expanded capacity from 6,000 to 8,000 -- on the opposite side of the tennis center; pushing seven courts on the southern edge of the property another 50 feet south to accommodate a larger walkway; and setting up a two-tier walkway for spectators to watch practice-court sessions.

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