Smorgasburg’s likely return angers Williamsburg parents

Residents object to popular event getting second no-bid contract to vend at East River park

From left: East River State Park, Smorgasburg, Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler
From left: East River State Park, Smorgasburg, Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler

Smorgasburg, the hipster food stall hangout founded by developer and blog entrepreneur Jonathan Butler, is on the brink of inking another deal to operate on the Williamsburg waterfront, a state official said. But in a tussle that pits two key Williamsburg demographics against each other, parents are fighting an uphill battle to keep the foodies from trashing the park.

The popular event, which brings food and craft vendors from around the region to East River State Park, will likely have its contract to use the space renewed for the 2014 season, according to Karen Phillips, regional director at New York State Parks and Recreation.

Butler and partner Eric Demby, who together founded the Brooklyn Flea market in Fort Greene, will pay about $120,000 in fees for the season, and donate $20,000 for an unspecified park amenity. In exchange, Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea will populate the park on weekends for eight months of the year, again next year.

Phillips spoke to neighborhood residents at a public meeting of the Friends of East River State Park, a non-profit group that advises the state agency, held last night at the residential tower Two Northside Piers.

Some residents in attendance complained that the attraction causes significant traffic, garbage disposal issues and noise in their neighborhood.

“All we are saying is scale it back a little,” said Jonathan Burkan, a parent who lives at 49 North 8th Street and brings his children to East River Park, across the street. “People are getting tired of all this.”

He and other residents urged the Smorgasburg organizers to limit the event to one day per weekend and to respond better to community concerns about trash and infrastructure.

Butler and Demby, for their part, claimed at the meeting that they respond personally to emails about complaints and pay for cleanup of Kent Avenue out of pocket. They contended that they didn’t want to “pull the rug out from underneath 200 small businesses” that rely on the event as an alternative to costly brick-and-mortar stores, Butler said.

“We need to consider the economic environment in the community,” as well as residents’ wishes, he said, noting that he and Demby are open to finding other ways to help ease the burden on the community.

The issue is complicated by the strapped budgets for state and city parks, said state Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who represents the area.

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Lentol, who helped pioneer the conversion of the industrial-zoned wasteland to riverfront park, said the neighborhood should strike a balance.

“We do want to allow the park to be a park some of the time,” he said.

But that is more easily said than done because Smorgasburg and the Flea effectively have no competition. The state, rather than the city, administers the park, but the park only receives a cut of revenues from commerce that takes place there because the events operate through a pilot program.

The state agency does not send out requests for proposals as it would with other events for contracts in a pilot program, Phillips said.

“That is not how a private enterprise would do [the decision making],” said one resident, who did not want her name used, echoing others who were disgruntled at the no-bid process.

However, the event generates money that the park needs to fund other programs, numerous observers said. Last year, Butler and Demby donated $40,000 to outfit the park with electricity so vendors would have power for the inaugural season.

But Burkan argued that when he moved to the area with his young children, the park was peaceful.

“People just want to have nothing going on” at the park sometimes, he said.

Though the parks department has not officially signed the Smorgasburg contract, Phillips admitted that alternatives were slim – it’s practically a done deal.

“We don’t want to make the kind of commitment that an RFP would entail,” Phillips said, although she left 2015 open to possibility.