Rich Parks, Poor Parks

The Boathouse in Prospect Park. The Prospect Park Alliance, which helps running the park, has received the concession to operate the café located inside the venue (Lucia De Stefani/NYCityLens)

The Boathouse in Prospect Park. The Prospect Park Alliance, which helps running the park, has received the concession to operate the café located inside the venue (Lucia De Stefani/NYCityLens)

A version of this story also appears on the The New York World.

It’s a sweet treat. A city board voted earlier this month on a deal that will allow the private organization that maintains Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to run two cafés—for a payment of a mere $1,000 in the coming year to the City Department of Parks and Recreation.

A soda can’s throw away from one of the cafés, along Prospect Park West, hot dog and nut vendors pay the department thousands of dollars a year for the privilege to sell food from small carts, in competition with the cafés.

But is it unfair? In a sense, comparing the carts to the cafes is like comparing apples and oranges, or perhaps hot dogs and scones, since alliance profits go not to a private company but to a nonprofit in charge of keeping up the park. The discrepancy in fees is an odd side effect of the city’s increased reliance on the Prospect Park Alliance and other private organizations to maintain and improve treasured green spaces.

It is inequities in that larger system of reliance on private charities to support public parks that may get a second look, since some argue that it supports parks in rich areas better than parks in poor ones.

The newly named city parks commissioner, Mitchell Silver, is inheriting this network of private funding—a network that Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked about revamping in order to spread benefits to neighborhoods whose parks lack deep financial support.

“We have to address inequalities in our parks and we have to correct them,” Mayor de Blasio said in introducing Silver to the city on March 24.

As Newsday reported at the time of the appointment, De Blasio has said the administration is mulling over a proposal by State Senator Daniel Squadron to redistribute 20 percent of donations received by well-endowed park conservancies, such as Central Park’s, to other parks that are in a state of disrepair. Silver has said that was worth having “a conversation” about. But critics argue that such a reform could depress donations to the parks.

“Donors can give money in whenever way they want,” says Tupper Thomas, the executive director of the New Yorkers For Parks, in reference to the generous gift of $100 Million that John Paulson, a billionaire hedge fund manager, donated to Central Park in 2012.

But surely such donations create an inequality that eventually will need to be addressed. “In my new position this is something that we are really looking into,” says Thomas, “How to have the private sector being more helpful and also how [we can] get the government understanding the important of funding parks,” continues Thomas, who has served as the president of the Prospect Park Alliance for the past three decades before joining New Yorkers For Parks, a citywide research and advocacy organization, earlier this year.

“But the problem isn’t the donor, and the problems isn’t the conservancy,” Thomas insists.

So the issue seems to loom larger than any discrepancies over licenses for the two Prospect Park cafes. That concession, approved by the Franchise and Concessions Review Committee, formalizes an existing deal between the Parks Department and the Alliance, and runs for one year, until July 2015, with the option of up to three five-year renewals. The Alliance will operate and maintain the two cafes, located at the Boathouse and at the Picnic House, both inside the park.

The Picnic House located inside Prospect Park. One of the two cafés that the Alliance will be operating is located at this venue.

The Picnic House, inside Prospect Park, where one of the two cafés that the Alliance will be operating is located (Lucia De Stefani/NYCityLens)

On a recent Sunday afternoon a hot dog stand and a nut cart set up shop along the congested Prospect Park West and on a small hill inside the park, just a few minutes’ walk down from the Picnic House.

Business is not so good now, the vendors said. “There are not tourists here. Only residents, and they don’t buy from us,” said a worker at the nut stall inside the park, while stuffing the thin white paper bags with honey-roasted mixed nuts. He declined to give his name.

“It is a seasonal business,” says the Bangladeshi owner of a pushcart. He said he bought a five-year permit to operate his cart on Army Plaza, the northern entrance to Prospect Park. He sells hot dogs during the winter and ice cream in the hot season, so he doesn’t really perceive the two cafes run by the Alliance—which offer different products, mostly muffins, cookies and coffee—as competitors.

The long winter has slowed down the carts’ business this year. But that is not the only challenge pushcarts have to face. The occasional presence of illegal vendors is in fact problematic: “We sell a soda for $3, and they sell it for $1 because they don’t need to pay for the permit. It is a problem for us,” the Bangladeshi man says.

The fees paid by the independent food carts are determined through competitive sealed-bid auctions, and the proceeds go into the city’s general fund—not to the parks.

Thomas says the cafes play a small but important role in supporting Prospect Park. “They were never facilities that made any money for the City of New York, but now they make a little money and they are also open and available as public spaces,” Thomas explained.

During her three decades with the Prospect Park Alliance, Thomas helped transform Brooklyn’s premier open space—restoring a historic carousel and tennis court, rebuilding landscapes and opening the Audubon Center and Picnic House as sites for private functions. “All the money raised by the Alliance goes back to the park and repairs the park,” Thomas said.

But not everybody agrees that handing over benefits to private groups is the solution. Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit watchdog group, criticized the private funding.

“These are public parks and they need to receive public funds,” said Croft. “The government and public officials are supposed to take care of them, and they are not.”

Croft sees the seed of inequality in the funding of the public parks by the private sector. Whereas some parks have generous donors and can largely benefit from the investment, others struggle with a small public fund unable to nurture a better public space for the residents, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“It is peanuts compare to what the park needs,” said Croft, “it is not the Alliance’s job to take care of the park. Rather, it is a responsibility of the city.”