State to solicit bids for Smorgasburg park space in Williamsburg

Smorgasburg at Marsha P. Johnson State Park before the pandemic.
File photo by Scott Lynch

Popular Williamsburg food fair Smorgasburg will have to compete for its space in Marsha P. Johnson State Park this year, as greenspace gurus in Albany plan to solicit bids for grub makers to set up shop at the Kent Avenue lawn this summer.

New York State Parks officials are drafting a new request for proposal for companies to host a food market with the appropriate COVID-19 safety measures in place at the waterfront space between N. Seventh and N. Eighth streets.

“State Parks is finalizing a request for proposals to operate a food fair at Marsha P. Johnson State Park. The RFP, which will be open to all qualified bidders, is expected to be issued in the coming weeks,” said agency spokesman Dan Keefe in an email.

The state has leased the park’s concrete slabs to Smorgasburg on weekends during the warmer months since 2013, drawing thousands of Brooklynites and visitors to the space every year — except for last year, when officials did not permit in-person events due to the pandemic.

A senior agency rep first publicly floated the idea of trying to find a new partner at a January virtual Community Board 1 meeting about the park’s controversial six-month, $14 million overhaul, which north Brooklynites at the time lambasted as a pricey vanity project by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“We are entertaining the notion — depending on COVID — of issuing an RFP for a food fair. Again, it would only happen safely depending on what the status of the coronavirus is for 2021,” the state agency’s director for New York City Leslie Wright told the civic panel on Jan. 12. “That would be a public RFP and anyone is welcome to apply.”

No more Smorg? 

Wright at a previous meeting told CB1 that Smorgasburg had been a reliable partner over the years, shooting down some area residents’s calls to pause the event on select summer weekends to give locals a relief from the crowds.

Keefe did not go into the specifics of why Parks was going through the trouble of drawing up a whole new bidding process, rather than just renewing the company’s annual permit as it has done for the better part of the decade.

“The agency periodically issues RFPs to explore and review potential options to help ensure we’re providing the best experience for park visitors,” the spokesman said.

Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby told Brooklyn Paper he’ll submit a response to the RFP, and hopes to bring back Smorgasburg’s locations in and outside the borough in late spring or early summer. But when asked why he thought Parks was making him contend for the north Brooklyn lot he’s held for years, he simply said, “Don’t have an answer for that one, honestly.”

Eric Demby, left, and Jonathan Butler brought their beloved Smorgasburg food fair indoors for the first time in 2018, setting up shop inside two venues in Fort Greene and Williamsburg.Photo by Colin Mixson

Smorgasburg’s history (and controversy)

Demby co-founded the artisan market Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene in 2008, before moving the bric-a-brac bazaar and its new foodie counterpart Smorgasburg to a privately-owned Williamsburg waterfront lot next to the state park in 2011. In 2013, the markets relocated to the public shoreline site then known as East River State Park.

Cuomo in August 2020 renamed the park in honor of Johnson, a gay civil rights activist who fought in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. 

The weekly fest has attracted thousands of foodies to the neighborhood every Saturday from April through October before the pandemic, and has grown with another busy market in Prospect Park on Sundays, along with indoor venues during the winter and new outposts in other boroughs and beyond.

The weekend crowds pre-pandemic irked some locals who said Smorgasburg unfairly monopolized the space during primetime usage of the park, leading them to issue their demands for some summertime Saturdays without the grub market — however, Wright last year maintained that the state park was for all New Yorkers to enjoy, not just nearby residents.

“The answer is no,” she said definitively.