Vendors don’t buy arguments for new laws

By Albert Amateau

Vendors who sell everything from hot dogs to handicrafts filled the City Council Chamber last week at the council’s hearing on proposed new rules on how and where vendors may do business on the sidewalks of New York.

Peddlers of printed matter and art, known as “First Amendment vendors,” who don’t need licenses because of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and of expression, were loud and clear about their opposition to new rules.

Wearing buttons and T-shirts proclaiming “Artist Power,” many of them carried signs and chanted their right to free speech and expression.

Members of the Street Vendors Project of the Urban Justice Center, who sell food, general merchandise, books and art on city sidewalks, said the bills on the Nov. 14 hearing agenda had “little or nothing to do with the real needs of hard-working street vendors.”

Testimony at the hearing, mostly from vendors of all sorts opposed to proposed changes, began at 10 a.m. and went on until early evening.

But City Councilmember Alan Jay Gerson, the prime sponsor of four of the peddler regulation bills on the agenda, said the proposals were part of a legislative package intended to simplify current complicated regulations.

Although the Nov. 14 hearing was supposed to be confined to eight proposed bills, Gerson noted that he is sponsoring a total of 14 legislative measures intended to reform the current rules that he said are completely inadequate to remedy the congestion on sidewalks jammed with street peddlers in places like Soho in Gerson’s Lower Manhattan Council District.

“I recently spoke with a woman who lives in Soho in my district who told me that she could barely move her mother in a wheelchair down Prince St. one Saturday because of vendors blocking the sidewalk,” Gerson said.

Gerson said his package of reforms is intended “to strike a balance between providing opportunities for legal vendors and maintaining open sidewalks in the neighborhoods where people live.”

But artists at the hearing said the proposals would prevent them from offering their works on the street.

“The city is trying to marginalize artists,” said Zane, an artist who sells his version of Japanese pop art in Union Square.

Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), the street artists group, who has won several court actions that established the category of First Amendment vendors, said that some provisions of Gerson’s vending package would “sell off” legal vending locations to business improvement districts, or BID’s, and similar corporate entities. Not on the Nov. 14 agenda is a Gerson proposal that would establish a lottery for art vendors on certain narrow streets.

Currently, there are 853 vendor licenses, but there are very many more First Amendment vendors and several thousand unlicensed general vendors operating on the sidewalks. Most people at the hearing said that enforcement of current vending regulations was arbitrary and unfair. They insisted that fair and evenhanded enforcement would solve problems better than new legislation.

Gerson, however, replied that enforcement was lax because the current regulations are unenforceable.

“More than one police officer has told me that the laws on vending were too complicated,” Gerson said.

Community Board 1, covering Lower Manhattan below Canal St. passed a resolution in September stating that First Precinct police complained that current laws did not allow them to have sufficient control of street peddlers. The board resolution supported Gerson’s efforts to improve the law, pending a full review of the new legislation. Julie Menin, C.B. 1 chairperson, praised Gerson’s efforts in a recent letter, and said the board would follow up with its own recommendations in December or January.

Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, the BID covering Lower Manhattan, submitted a statement at the hearing noting that street vending became a problem at the World Trade Center site. She said that unlawful, unlicensed street vending that blocks building entrances should be subject to “consistent and coordinated enforcement.”

“While modifying citywide licensing as Councilmember Gerson … [has] proposed is important, existing conditions in Lower Manhattan are such that we cannot wait for a legislative solution,” Berger said.

Several years ago, state legislation was passed prohibiting street vending of any kind around the World Trade Center site. Despite the legislation, the vending has persisted. Chris Ward, the Port Authority’s executive director, has recently pledged to use P.A. police to help enforce the vending law around the W.T.C.

Current and proposed city rules are complicated because they govern general vendors and food vendors, who require licenses, as well as “First Amendment vendors,” who operate without licenses. Food vendors must first obtain a Department of Health license as well as a pushcart permit. Only 3,100 pushcart permits are available at a time. Added to that number will be another 1,000 fresh fruit and vegetable cart permits that will become available in the next two years, as a result of recent city legislation.

Food vendors say the lack of correlation between the number of pushcart permits and food licenses results in a black market where permit holders lease their carts to other licensed food vendors for a substantial fee.

Food carts are not allowed on certain streets and not all of those restrictions are the same as the street restrictions for general vendors.

New York State legislation gives disabled veteran vendors special rights that permit them to vend in many areas that are off-limits to other vendors. But since First Amendment vendors may sell their goods on any street open to vending, wherever licensed veterans occupy otherwise restricted streets, First Amendment vendors are also allowed on that street.

One of Gerson’s bills on the Nov. 14 agenda, Intro 830, would limit the number of First Amendment vendors on certain narrow Lower Manhattan and Midtown sidewalks.

Currently, sidewalks narrower than 12 feet are open only to veterans with state permits. On some narrow sidewalks in particularly congested areas, only one or two veteran vendors are allowed per block. The bill would impose the same limits on the number of First Amendment vendors as veteran vendors.

Another Gerson bill, Intro 832, would define the word “obstruction” in connection with vending on crowded sidewalks. Current law permits vending on sidewalks with a 12-foot-wide, clear pedestrian path from the property line to any obstruction. Intro 832 defines “obstruction” as “including raised or uneven metal plating, basement doors, tree roots, inlaid bubble-glass surfaces and any other object which may interfere with pedestrian movement.”

Another bill, Intro 828, would prohibit general vendors, and by extension First Amendment vendors, from leaving pushcarts, stands or goods for more than 30 minutes at a time, and would empower police to impound such unattended material. City officials at the hearing said they wanted the law to prohibit vendors from leaving pushcarts, stands or goods for no more than 10 minutes.

The city officials, including Shari Hyman, coordinator of the city Criminal Justice Office; Police Lieutenant Dan Albano, and Andrew Eiler, director of legislative affairs in the Department of Consumer Affairs, insisted that no vendor reform would be effective unless the state reclassifies vendor law violations as misdemeanors so that repeat violations can be tracked in the court system.

Although fines up to $1,000 may be imposed, mere violations are not tracked in the court system. In turn, because violations are not listed in court records, there is no way to impose stiffer penalties for repeat offenders, the officials said.

The Nov. 14 hearing was conducted by Councilmember Leroy Comrie of Queens, chairperson of the Consumer Affairs Committee, and Councilmember Dr. Kendall Stewart, head of the Immigration Committee, who noted that 80 percent of vendors in the city are foreign born.

“Vending legislation has a major impact on the immigrant community,” said Kendall. Indeed, many of the vendors who testified at the hearing were immigrants.

Another vendor law proposal, Intro 324A, received the enthusiastic support from vendors at the hearing.

The bill would increase the number of pushcart permits to 25,000 and the number of vendor permits to 15,000. Once those numbers are achieved, the number of permits would increase by 5 percent each year thereafter.

“This is a city of immigrants,” said Councilmember Charles Barron, main sponsor of Intro 324A. “People who create their own jobs to feed their families in this economic environment are to be commended. There are 10,000 unlicensed vendors,” Barron said. “We should, raise the cap on licenses and open more streets to vending. We can work out all the rest of the problems.”