The first step to a solution for Soho’s street vendors

At its January full board meeting, Community Board 2 unanimously passed a resolution calling on Mayor Bloomberg and the city to take steps toward dealing with chaotic street congestion caused by the massive number of street vendors along Broadway in Soho.

The board wants Bloomberg to finally convene the Street Vendor Review Panel — something he has failed to do over the course of his three terms — in order to draw up and implement sensible new regulations.

We agree that convening the review panel — which would include representatives from the departments of Small Business Services, Transportation and City Planning — is the right first step toward solving the vendor and pedestrian congestion along Broadway. The mayor and city basically chose to ignore this issue for more than a decade, as inconsistent or nonexistent enforcement of current laws compounded the problem, so the ball truly is in their court at this point.

The C.B. 2 resolution came out of the board’s Environment, Public Safety and Public Health Committee — and the committee chose to tackle this difficult problem because they wanted to do the right thing by responding to the concerns of Soho residents.

But as Committee Chairperson Bob Ely and neighborhood activist Pete Davies have pointed out, this shouldn’t be seen as a fight against the everyday people working as street vendors. These are simply people who have to make a living and feed their families. The point here isn’t to sweep hard-working people into the gutter.

This is, plain and simple, a beef with the sluggishness of Mayor Bloomberg and the city. Now is the time for them to sit down and put some real effort into making Soho’s Broadway a safer, cleaner and more enjoyable place for everyone to be — whether they’re locals, tourists or vendors.

These sort of street conditions might be the sort of things the proposed Soho Business Improvement District could focus on, were it ever to come into existence. However, many local residents are dead-set against the BID. Regardless of whether there is or isn’t a BID, though, there’s no reason the panel can’t be convened — now — to take a fresh look at the situation on the ground.

If vendors-rights activists like Robert Lederman of ARTIST (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) feel that any review of the current conditions will only lead to an infringement of liberties and an overstepping of authority, they are free to make their case, and should do so. Defending art as free speech is one thing. But is a chicken kabob sandwich on a pita — or a hot sausage with onions and relish, or a potato knish — free speech, especially when purchased and eaten?

Lederman rarely loses in his court challenges, but if sidewalk crowding and other issues attributed to food carts are real concerns in Soho, then let the vendor panel take a good look at them and make its own, studied determination. The panel’s purpose, after all, is to achieve a positive result. But the failure to even convene the body means there’s no oversight whatsoever, except for sporadic penalties against the carts and vendors by city inspectors. And perhaps the vendors themselves have issues that they’d like to air in this sort of forum. In short, this can be a win-win for all concerned.

Above all, we cannot fathom why the city blatantly refuses to respond to the pleas of Soho residents and C.B. 2 to convene the Street Vendor Review Panel. Why does this panel even exist at all if its only purpose is to remain dormant, toothless and invisible?

Convene the panel.

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