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New Rules Proposed for City's Street Fairs Would End Decade-Long Moratorium

By Jeanmarie Evelly | September 22, 2016 12:26pm
 A vendor at the East Harlem 116th Street Festival in 2013.
A vendor at the East Harlem 116th Street Festival in 2013.
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Claire Cameron/DNAInfo

NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to overhaul how the city regulates its street fairs next year in an attempt to diversify and localize the outdoor events — though critics say the changes could prove hard to carry out and may prevent some longtime fairs from happening.

The new rules, proposed by the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Events Coordination and Management, would end a more than decade-long moratorium on new multi-day and multi-block street fairs, according to the city.

They would also require that at least half a festival's vendors be from the community district where the event is being held, an effort to bring more variety to the fairs, which have been criticized for being monotonous displays of cheap scarves and sausage stands.

RELATED: Here's What the Future of City's Street Fairs Could Look Like

But Mort Berkowitz — president of Mort and Ray Productions, which runs the famous San Gennaro Festival and 10 street fairs on the Upper West Side — called some of the proposed rules "silly."

Requiring at least half of a festival's vendors to come from within the local community district would be too difficult a requirement to meet, he said.

"That would eliminate every single fair in the city of New York," he said, adding that he used to offer free street space to local merchants at some of his events, but that very few of the businesses took him up on it.

"You would need to hire several people to be out on the street, in addition to having them on the inside [of the establishment]," he said of merchants who would need to bulk up their staff in order to participate.

"It would cost them more money, and they're not used to selling outside."

Since 2004, the city's Street Activity Permit Office has had a freeze on permits for new multi-day and single-day multi-block street fairs, while festivals that only take up one block for one day were allowed to seek new permits.

The moratorium on the bigger and longer festivals was an attempt to limit the amount of police and other city resources used for such events, though it also meant the return of the same festivals each year, many of them run by the same handful of production companies bringing in the same vendors.

"If you've seen one, you've seen them all," said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, which has advocated to make the events "less generic." 

He called the city's proposed changes "a great step in the right direction."

"By requiring that half of the vendors come from the local community, it does seem like you're going to find a street fair in Park Slope is going to be different than a street fair in Sunnyside," Bowles said.

"There's something really promising about that rule change, which will bring a breed of new vendors and hopefully breed some new life."

But Bowles recognized that the requirement might be hard for festival producers to meet.

"They're trying to make money, they have to round up vendors week in and week out. It's not easy," he said.

"I think that we just need more independent vendors, period," Bowles added. "Whether they come from all corners of the city [or] one particular neighborhood — it doesn’t matter to me."

The city's new rules would also limit the total number of festival permits issued to 200 per year citywide, with a limit of 100 in Manhattan, where the greatest number of fairs traditionally take place.

Each of the city's community boards would be allowed to host a maximum of 20 "single block street festivals" each year, defined as events that close only one block and last just a day. 

Community boards would also be limited to 10 "street festivals" a year, or events that require closing one block for multiple days or multiple blocks for one day or more, according to the rules.

During a discussion of the new rules at a Queens Community Board 1 meeting this week, some worried that the limits on the number of permits in each board and the added competition that the end of the moratorium would bring could make it harder for local organizations to get permits for their annual fairs.

"I don't think it's very fair; people have been having these street fairs for years and years," said Ann Bruno, who heads the board's Street Festivals/Special Events committee. "That's their only funding."

The city is accepting feedback on the proposed changes — individuals can email their thoughts to saporules@cityhall.nyc.gov — and will also hold a public hearing next month.

The hearing will take place Oct. 13 at 10 a.m. in the the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings on the 12th floor of 100 Church St. in Manhattan.

The Mayor’s Office of Citywide Events Coordination and Management will consider feedback from the hearing before finalizing the new rules, which would go into effect in 2017.