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San Diego approves street vendor crackdown in 8-1 vote; rules to impact Pacific Beach

A street vendor sells food along 5th avenue and Market Street in the Gaslamp Quarter on August 27, 2021.
Street vendors sell food items along 5th avenue and Market Street in the Gaslamp Quarter on Saturday, August 27, 2021.
(Sandy Huffaker/for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supporters call measure the right balance; critics say it’s racist because most vendors are immigrants of color

San Diego cracked down Tuesday on thousands of street vendors who have dramatically changed the look and feel of many popular city locations, including Balboa Park, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and areas near the Convention Center.

Included in a summer moratorium (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are Mission Bay Park, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and the Mission Beach Boardwalk. Also portions of Garnet Avenue due to its proximity with Crystal Pier.

Among the areas where sidewalk vending will be prohibited year-round are the Crown Point Bike Path, Mission Bay Bike Path, Bayside Walk and Ocean Boulevard Bike Path, along with Mission Beach Park.

The City Council voted 8-1 to approve legislation that partially bans street vendors in parks and such pedestrian-heavy areas as Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter. It also requires vendors to obtain city permits and institutes fines and possible impoundment for rules violations.

Supporters call it a balance between fostering vendors as a new class of entrepreneurs and preventing them from damaging the character of parks, beach areas and business districts.

Legislation, which aims to foster vendors while protecting cherished public space, is headed for March council vote

Merchant groups mostly praised the new law, which takes effect June 1. But some lobbied unsuccessfully for more restrictions, such as banning vendors in more areas and requiring them to have insurance.

Advocates for vendors said the new law is too punitive and aggressive, stressing that it would ban vendors from most high-traffic and profitable areas. They also said it has racist overtones because most vendors are immigrants of color.

Councilmember Raul Campillo said the new law is crucial because the lack of legislation has allowed irresponsible street vendors to crowd out responsible vendors in a “race to the bottom,” where no one is held accountable.

“I fully understand that not everyone is happy with the ordinance and there is still work to do, but I’m confident this is the compromise that will get regulations on our books to increase public health and safety, while also promoting entrepreneurship among our residents,” he said.

Other council members praised the new law for successfully walking a fine line.

But Councilmember Vivian Moreno, who cast the lone “no” vote, said the new law is overly broad and will lead to uneven enforcement, with vendors in high-traffic areas facing much more scrutiny.

She also called some elements of the new law “almost deceitful” and attempts to create a “covert ban” on vendors.

Moreno also suggested the law goes beyond regulating health and safety. That would violate state guidelines that say cities can only restrict vendors on those criteria and not to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from competition.

Moreno’s comments echo those of many vendor advocates, including a group called the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium.

“The ordinance as written is restrictive and will make it very difficult for sidewalk vendors to continue to operate,” said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, a leader of the group. “It bans sidewalk vendors from operating in some of the most high-traffic, profitable areas for them and will significantly limit how many vendors can sell in a given area due to restrictions on proximity to other vendors.”

Grassi also criticized the impoundment rules in the new law.

“Small things such as not having hand sanitizer, having a customer throw their garbage in a city trash can, or having a bell on a pushcart could have catastrophic consequences, such as having a permit revoked, a $1,000 fine or having property impounded,” she said.

In response, the council amended the law before adopting it to stipulate that a violation leading to impoundment must be significant in nature.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he empathizes with the immigrants and other vendors that the new law will harm economically, noting that Nike and Apple started out as small, vendor-style businesses.

But Elo-Rivera said the council simply had to act.

“I’ve been to the beach and I’ve been to Balboa Park and seen those who have taken advantage of the current system,” he said.

Supporters of the new law also raised some concerns.

They worried that city plans to seek Coastal Commission approval for some of the new laws would delay their implementation west of Interstate 5, flooding those areas with vendors from the east who will face the new city rules sooner.

They also urged city officials to prioritize enforcement of the new rules, which will be handled by park rangers and code enforcement officers — not police officers, except in extreme cases.

“Enforcement is a huge thing for us and we hope you will make sure this ordinance gets enforced,” said Denny Knox, leader of the Ocean Beach Main Street Association.

The new law bans vendors only during the busy summer months — instead of possibly banning them year-round — in Balboa Park and many of the city’s beach areas.

It also targets vendor bans to main thoroughfares in some business districts, like Little Italy and Ocean Beach. Vendors would be allowed to continue operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.

Councilmember Joe LaCava tried to get the summer ban extended to Oct. 1, but his proposal to make that change was rejected by the council in a 5-4 vote.

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn successfully got vendors banned from more areas of Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter and Old Town.

Long-awaited legislation called compromise between fostering robust vendors, preserving access to key public spaces

In addition to restricting where vendors can operate, the new law restricts what they can sell. Prohibited items include alcoholic beverages, tobacco, vaping products, cannabis, pharmaceuticals, live animals and weapons — including knives, guns, or explosive devices.

The law creates “entrepreneurship zones” — places where vendors would get chances to flourish together with possible financial help from the city. Locations for those zones have not been chosen.

The legislation was primarily crafted by Venus Molina, chief of staff for Councilmember Dr. Jennifer Campbell.

For details on the new law, go to sandiego.gov/sidewalkvending


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