Should For-Profit Businesses Be Allowed in Public Park Space?

by GWAPP on

At a last week’s OSA Community Committee Public Forum, North Brooklyn residents asked a number of questions regarding Brooklyn Flea’s usage of park land in the East River State Park (ERSP). A few residents at the meeting expressed their displeasure that parkland was provided to these businesses at what they consider a small and unfair amount, given the impact the events have on the surrounding community.

© Anne Ruthmann. Flickr. Brooklyn Flea, June 16, 2013.

To provide some context: Brooklyn Flea is a for-profit enterprise that operates in ERSP every Sunday from April 7 to November 24, from 10:00am to 5:00pm (add a few hours for loading/cleanup each day) bringing up to 150 vendors to the park. Similarly, their market partner, Smorgasburg, also a for-profit enterprise, operates in ERSP every Saturday from April 6 to November 23, from 11:00am to 6:00pm (add a few hours for loading/cleanup each day) bringing up to 100 vendors. Vendors for each market pay up to $275/day for their booth as well as for add-ons like tents and tables if requested. If the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg operated at full capacity (250 vendors) for the weekend and each vendor paid the maximum fee ($275), that’s $68,750 total for one weekend for these two businesses. If they operate uninterrupted for 37 weekends that’s $2,543,750 in vendor sales for the season.

On March 12, 2013, Karen Phillips, Regional Director of NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation gave a presentation, ERSP to Become Weekend Home of Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, at the CB1 Public Hearing and Board Meeting. She said a partnership was negotiated between Brooklyn Flea/Smorgasburg (the operators) and NYS Office of Parks and their non-profit arm, Natural Heritage Trust. [Ed. note: The Natural Heritage Trust’s mission is “to receive and administer gifts, grants and contributions to further public programs for parks, recreation, cultural, land and water conservation and historic preservation purposes of the State of New York.”]

According to Phillips, the operators would be responsible for:

  • Paying a negotiated fee of $1,500 a day (seemingly this goes to the Natural Heritage Trust),
  • Providing their own sanitation crews,
  • Providing their own security and cleanup,
  • Providing a designated area and special security for serving alcohol,
  • Covering “some park staff costs,”
  • Paying any overtime while the Park’s staff is there,
  • Investing in infrastructure that meets State Parks’ standards at a figure of more than $25,000.

Phillips also stated at the CB1 meeting that they (unclear who they is) did meet with the Friends of East River State Park group “in advance to tell them about it.”

In a press release by the NYS Office of Parks in February, it states that NYC State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, “discussed preparations for the 2013 spring/summer season and ideas for the future of the park’s community partners, including the Friends of East River State Park, the Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn Parks and Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.” Events and projects discussed at the meeting included: “art installations, farmers markets, additional equipment for the playground, areas for pets, theater performances, and shade structures. …A lively line up of community events, permitted ventures and park improvements to enhance last year’s offerings.” There is no mention of Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg in the press release, and it’s unclear whether the state’s partnership with them was discussed at this particular meeting with community groups present, or at any other meetings previous to the partnership being made.

At the CB1 meeting, Phillips stated that the operators would be taking up “less than half of an acre” of the park’s upland seven acres. She stated that the concrete slabs (two 40,000 sq. ft. sections) were underutilized but did not cite any specific studies or research on NYS Parks drew that conclusion. She did state, “People BBQ there sometimes during the summer and us the picnic tables. …Sometimes they [people] have special events there.” When asked, Phillips confirmed that the operators would only be operating on one slab, the southern-most one closer to North 7th St. If the operators are on one slab of roughly 40,000 sq. ft. that would mean they’re taking up almost one acre, not half an acre as Phillips described.

When pressed with how the fee was determined, Phillips stated that is it a partnership with the Natural Heritage Trust and “that they will try it out for a year basically.” After that, the non-profit and State’s Office of Parks will have to figure out what kind of selection process to use for future use. She also mentioned how the State could rent to events that are not open to the public and that these operators would be opening to the public.

© Edenpictures. Flickr. Smorgasburg on April 27, 2013.

North Brooklyn has some of the lowest per capita parks space in all of New York City (0.6 acres per 1,000 residents in 2004.) We strongly feel any repurposing of our precious open space should be organized in consultation with the community.

According to a NY Times article, when Brooklyn Flea had its opening day in Fort Greene in 2008, they “drew about 20,000 people” and Smorgasburg was drawing roughly 5,000 people on Saturdays in 2012. It’s fair to say, several thousand people come to ERSP to enjoy Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg over the weekend. At a conservative estimate, if 5,000 people were to attend one day and congregate on a half-acre parcel of land, that gives each person 4.3 sq. ft. of personal space. If the events are actually using one acre of land, that gives 5,000 people 8.7 sq. ft. of personal space. That surely makes the rest of the park’s 6 to 6.5 acres of public open space quite inviting. article published in March, before the operators opened in ERSP, sharing concerns of local residents: “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and we’ve had a commercial explosion, and now commerce is going to be taking over our park,” and “while the flea was a fun and popular addition to the neighborhood, it’s a shame that its continued presence comes at the cost of open space which is already in short supply here.”

While Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg are often pointed to for the issue of private enterprise in public open spaces, the community’s issue with the current situation goes beyond these two businesses. It begs the larger questions:

  • Under what conditions, if any, should public park land be used for private enterprise?
  • How can the community have a say in how the park land is used for private enterprise?
  • Why isn’t NYS Parks more transparent in it’s negotiations with private enterprise regarding park land?
  • What are NYS Parks’ plan for private enterprise in East River State Park in 2014?
  • Why wasn’t an official request for proposal (RFP) put out? Will they do so in the future?
  • What is a “fair price” for renting out public open spaces?
  • Can contracts be for shorter windows of time, both over a seasonal period and daily?
  • Who and how is a public open space determined to be underutilized and fit for renting out?
  • Who is currently studying/watching to see what sort of impact is being made from these private enterprises or special events on the rest of the park and the local community?

Tell us what you think in the comments about private businesses using city or state parkland.




The Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks & Planning, Inc. ("GWAPP") is a not-for-profit group, 501(c)(3), comprised of individuals, community organizations, religious institutions, and concerned citizens from the Greenpoint-Williamsburg communities dedicated to the development of parks and public access on the Greenpoint waterfront.