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San Diego unveils long-awaited proposed street vendor law

Street vendors set up at Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach.
(Milan Kovacevic)

The legislation is called a compromise between fostering robust vending and preserving access to key public spaces.

San Diego officials have unveiled long-awaited legislation that would put dozens of new restrictions on street vending, including partial bans in parks and high foot-traffic areas.

Some merchant groups praised the city for bringing forward the legislation after years of delays and controversy, but they also raised concerns that the proposal could have unintended consequences and might not go far enough.

A primary concern is that enacting bans in some areas may push displaced vendors into the limited remaining areas where vending is allowed, creating overconcentration.

Advocates for vendors said they are frustrated that the partial bans would force many vendors to stop operating in those high-traffic areas, and they criticized a plan to require vendors to obtain both a business license and a special vendor permit.

While vendor advocates want some significant amendments, they praised part of the legislation that would create “entrepreneurship zones” where vendors would get chances to flourish with possible financial help from the city.

The proposed legislation, which was crafted primarily by aides for City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, is being described as a compromise effort aiming to let vendors prosper while protecting access to key public spaces.

“Residents, entrepreneurs and visitors are ready for clarity when it comes to street vending,” said Campbell, whose District 2 includes Point Loma, Ocean Beach and other coastal areas. “This is the first step to provide it.”

A key compromise in the proposal is banning vendors in Balboa Park and many of the city’s beach areas only during the busy summer months, instead of possibly banning them year-round.

The proposal also would limit vendor bans to the main thoroughfares in some business districts, such as the Gaslamp Quarter and Ocean Beach. Vendors would be allowed to continue operating on the cross and side streets in those areas.

Groups calling for legislation say the rapid proliferation of vendors has dramatically changed the look and feel of many popular San Diego locations, including beach areas.

The legislation, which city officials hope to finalize before opening day of the Padres baseball season in April and the summer tourist season, will be discussed Wednesday, Feb. 9, by the City Council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

The meeting comes after a City Council hearing on the ordinance scheduled for Dec. 14 was scrapped by council President Sean Elo-Rivera because “our office did not receive a draft of the street vending ordinance as of the deadline for it to be docketed.”

The effort was headed for a vote Dec. 14, but the new City Council president sends the proposed law back to the council’s economic development committee.

Ocean Beach residents have complained that crowds of vendors are ruining the beach areas and benefiting from unfair competition with local businesses.

The December delay spurred anger at the January meeting of the Ocean Beach Town Council.

With a street vending ordinance not going before the San Diego City Council in December after Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell had announced her intention to present it, that issue became a focal point during the Ocean Beach Town Council’s January meeting.

“There’s nothing more true than to continue to acknowledge the fact that this is the top issue in OB at this point and it has been for a long time,” said OBTC President Corey Bruins. “As emotions flare up around this, it really is getting to the point where community members, community leaders, even those of you who are working in government offices, are throwing their hands in the air and shouting, ‘It’s beyond past time.’ To a certain point, it’s reasonable to have a little bit of anger around that.”

OBTC board member Gary Gartner added his frustration, calling numerous delays in San Diego street vending legislation in recent years “outrageous.”

A surfer walks past street vendors in Ocean Beach.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

City Council member Raul Campillo, chairman of the economic development committee, says he believes the new proposal strikes a proper balance.

“Many of our street vendors hail from immigrant communities and they deserve a shot at the American dream through these microbusinesses,” Campillo said. “Through the pathway this ordinance lays out, we can ensure that all street vendors run their businesses in a way that stimulates our economy, adds to our culture and ensures public safety.”

Elo-Rivera said he has scheduled a March 1 vote by the full council — if the proposal is approved by the economic development committee.

“We believe it is critical that community members have ample time to read, analyze and make suggestions so the council can make the best choice possible for our city,” Elo-Rivera said.

The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce said earlier this winter that it’s crucial to get some legislation on the books to start the inevitable process of tinkering with the new law based on its early impact.

In interviews, advocates for street vendors agreed. They are demanding annual reviews of the new law based on data and feedback collected from those affected.

Merchant groups, which have loudly advocated for a crackdown since many business districts became flooded with street vendors three years ago, said they’ll also want changes before the legislation is finalized.

The controversy stems from Senate Bill 946, a 2018 state law that aims to encourage a new class of small entrepreneurs among California’s low-income residents, many of them immigrants with families.

The law prohibits local governments from banning all vendors or levying criminal penalties against them, but it allows some restrictions on vendors if the goal is not to limit economic competition. Instead, the restrictions must either address health and safety problems or preserve the scenic characteristics of parks.

How it would work

A 23-page summary of the city’s proposed legislation is careful to explain how each proposed restriction would comply with SB 946.

The proposal would create complete vendor bans at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, the Ocean Beach Pier, Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, most city bike paths and many other locations.

But there would be only partial bans in many other areas.

Most parks would have vendor bans during the summer, but vendors would be allowed to operate the rest of the year.

In popular tourist areas like Ocean Beach, the main streets would have vendor bans but the cross streets mostly would not.

There also would be restrictions near Pechanga Arena in the Midway District.

Basics of the proposed legislation include requirements that vendors be at least age 18, have photo identification and obtain a business license, a state seller’s permit and a county health permit.

The city also is proposing that vendors get a special permit that must be renewed annually. The cost of the permit would be based on how much city officials estimate they spend on enforcing restrictions on vendors.

The proposal would require vendors to stay minimum distances from objects such as fire hydrants, park fountains, building entrances, bus stops and other sensitive areas.

It also would require vendors to maintain minimum distances from one another to prevent them from forming large clusters. Each vendor would be limited to a maximum area of 24 square feet.

Denny Knox, leader of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, said she is worried that the city would need approval from the California Coastal Commission to enact the vendor restrictions west of Interstate 5.

If so, restrictions likely would be implemented at least a year earlier in inland areas, until the city obtains Coastal Commission approval.

For more details on the proposal, go to sandiego.gov/sidewalkvending.

— Freelance writer Steven Mihailovich contributed to this report.


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