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Parkonomics

Why humble hot dog carts pay much more in rent than conservancy-operated cafes

Newly named city parks commissioner Mitchell Silver is inheriting a network of private funding for public parks that Mayor de Blasio has proposed to revamp in order to spread wealth to neighborhoods whose parks lack such financial support.

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

The gulf between rich and poor neighborhoods may not be the only gap the commissioner will have to confront.

A city board voted earlier this month on a deal that will allow the private organization that maintains 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, on and near Prospect Park West, vendors pay the department as much as $70,000 a year for the privilege of selling hot dogs and ice cream from a cart, in competition with the cafés.

The Prospect Park Picnic House is a money-maker for the nonprofit Prospect Park Alliance. Photo: Lucia De Stefani

The Prospect Park Picnic House is a money-maker for the nonprofit Prospect Park Alliance. Photo: Lucia De Stefani

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.

In Prospect Park, funds netted from the cafés go to the alliance, and therefore to maintaining the park — so it makes sense to keep the rent low. In contrast, the cart rentals are big money-makers for the city. Collectively, the pushcarts currently licensed by the parks department are worth $26 million in concession fees paid by the vendors. That money goes into the city’s general fund, not to the parks’ budgets.

The fees paid by the independent food carts are determined through competitive sealed-bid auctions.

The concession approved by the Franchise and Concessions Review Committee formalizes an existing deal between the Parks Department and the Alliance, and runs until July 2015, with the option of up to three five-year renewals. The alliance will operate and maintain two cafés, located at the Boathouse and the Picnic House.

On a recent Sunday afternoon a hot dog stand and a nut cart set up shop near the Picnic House.

Business is not so good now, the vendors say. “There are not tourists here. Only residents, and they don’t buy from us,” says 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.

Janani Foods operates two food carts in Prospect Park, for which the company pays the city $104,000 a year; it also has concessions for two carts in Central Park. Owner Gopal Saha declined to be interviewed, saying that he does not speak English.

A relative of Saha’s involved in the company, who declined to provide his name, said he doesn’t perceive the two cafés run by the Alliance — which offer mostly muffins, cookies and coffee — as competitors.

“It is a seasonal business,” he said — hot dogs during the winter and ice cream in the summer.

Tupper Thomas — former president of the Prospect Park Alliance, now executive director of New Yorkers For Parks, a citywide research and advocacy organization — says the cafés 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 a 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 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.”