Sellers dwindle in Ocean Beach with arrival of sidewalk vending enforcement
Some locals see the regulations as long overdue, while some vendors say they’re unfair.
The boardwalk area of Ocean Beach around Veterans Plaza was once a densely packed de facto open market. Dozens of vendors sold jewelry, clothing, art, decor and more from folding tables under pop-up canopies.
But that congregation has been depleted, largely by the newly begun enforcement of San Diego’s sidewalk vending ordinance in the city’s coastal areas.
For the record:
9:30 a.m. Feb. 5, 2023This article was updated to correct the name of Wasani Guerrero’s apparel brand.
A mayor’s representative tells the Ocean Beach Town Council that OB will have at least two rangers enforcing the city’s ordinance after an initial push of about six.
The ordinance, which includes rules for permits and health and safety, was first passed by the City Council on March 1 and given final approval May 17. It took full effect in most of the city June 22. But restrictions on where and when sidewalk vendors can operate could not be enforced at first in coastal communities while awaiting review by the California Coastal Commission.
The commission agreed in August to withdraw its review and allow enforcement in the coastal zone, which began Feb. 1.
The city says more than 500 sidewalk vending permits have been issued since the ordinance went into effect.
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Park rangers, who are responsible for sidewalk vending enforcement at city beaches and shoreline parks, were educating vendors in coastal communities about the ordinance weeks before the enforcement started, according to the city.
That appeared to have an impact on the number of vendors in Ocean Beach. Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, said there once were as many as 85 vendors at the foot of Newport Avenue. As of Jan. 18, she said, there were only 10 to 20.
The morning of Feb. 1, the first day of full enforcement in coastal areas, Veterans Plaza was empty of vendors.
Shoreline park rangers that day issued four administrative citations and recorded two infractions. Of the citations, three were in Ocean Beach and one was in La Jolla. Both of the infractions were in OB.
In recent years, many cities across the state have passed local ordinances to regulate street vendors in ways allowed by California Senate Bill 946, called the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. That law, passed in 2018, prohibits local governments from banning all vendors or levying criminal penalties against them, but it does allow regulations that focus on health, safety and welfare issues.
Mark Winkie, president of the Ocean Beach Community Development Corp., said San Diego’s ordinance is a long-awaited response to the concerns of community members frustrated by the high concentration of vendors along the boardwalk area.
“People who visited Ocean Beach could not fully enjoy that area because sometimes it was just completely full of vending without any regard to people wanting to enjoy Veterans Plaza,” he said. “And access to the beach was hindered and impeded on.”
The ordinance states that regulating sidewalk vending is necessary to prevent obstacles and congestion for pedestrian, vehicle and bicycle traffic; ensure compliance with sanitation and food preparation and handling laws; and “prevent an undue concentration of commercial activity that would unreasonably interfere with the scenic and natural character of ... parks and beaches.”
“There’s a feeling that the vendors had leveraged the location of Ocean Beach to their advantage and not given anything back,” Winkie said. “They’ve worn out the grass [at Veterans Plaza], they’ve left trash behind and in turn have not volunteered to pick up trash. It’s just every man for himself.”
Mark Herpst, who has been a vendor since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, said the frustration directed at vendors as a whole is unfair.
“The unlicensed vendors that were out here selling stuff [that they shouldn’t be selling], I get it, they had to go,” Herpst said. “A lot of vendors got the license, but it seems like the area doesn’t want us here.”
The ordinance prohibits selling things such as alcohol, tobacco, vaping and cannabis products; weapons; pharmaceuticals; live animals and items illegal under other laws.
Vendors operating illegally may be cited and subject to fines ranging from $200 to $1,000, depending on the number and types of violations. Carts, equipment and goods may be impounded.
“They’ve worn out the grass [at Veterans Plaza], they’ve left trash behind and in turn have not volunteered to pick up trash. It’s just every man for himself.”
— Mark Winkie, president of Ocean Beach Community Development Corp.
Entrepreneur and musician Wasani Guerrero acknowledged that some vendors were problematic and said he welcomes the regulations as a way to promote businesses that are willing to operate responsibly.
“There is a plethora of vendors who don’t want any regulations and want to do whatever they want,” Guerrero said. “Since the beginning I’ve been hoping for some type of regulation, only because when new people started to come out, they started to do whatever they wanted, intruding in other spaces and being rude. So it’s helpful to know that there is some kind of regulation promoting the fact that we can do this, because obviously this isn’t harming anyone.”
Guerrero has been selling his brand of upcycled apparel, WHOA, for about eight years and started selling out of a pop-up canopy around 2020. He said he uses the revenue from sales to supplement his musical endeavors.
“It’s helped me buy music equipment, it’s paid travel expenses to get to shows and it’s an additional revenue source to have inventory at those shows,” he said. “It’s a way to support my art directly.”
Guerrero said he intends to try to keep selling in Ocean Beach.
City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Ocean Beach and Point Loma, said in a statement that she worked closely with community members on the terms of the sidewalk vending ordinance. Venus Molina, Campbell’s chief of staff, said the adopted ordinance is more lenient than previous drafts.
For example, the city slashed the annual permit fee that vendors must pay to $38 from a proposed $230.
“The ordinance that was drafted at the beginning was very restrictive,” Molina said. “A lot of the vendors and activists and advocates of vendors pushed back on it. So when we took it over last year, I worked with the advocates to kind of create a compromise in some of the language. The end result was something that everyone was pretty much happy with.”
Jimmy Hamidi, an entrepreneur since he was 9, operates San Diego Crystals & Jewelry out of a canopy and said he dreams of launching a larger business. He said the new ordinance is not fair or balanced.
“Of course everybody has to follow the rules ... we follow all the rules,” Hamidi said. “They told us to get a permit, we got a permit. But according to the rules, there is no place to set up. That doesn’t make any sense to give people permits but not allow them to set up.”
Among other things, the ordinance blocks vending year-round at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park; within 25 feet of any beach access point or pier; within 25 feet of any decorative fountain, statue, monument, memorial or art installation; and on main thoroughfares in some business districts, including Newport Avenue between Abbott Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach during the busy summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Vendors are allowed to continue operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.
In many city shoreline parks, including in Ocean Beach, the ordinance calls for banning vendors during the summer.
The regulations also require sidewalk vendors to stay a minimum of 50 feet from other vendors in public parks, plazas and beach areas; 100 feet from fire, police or lifeguard stations; and 500 feet from permitted events and from schools when in use. Each vendor is to be limited to a maximum area of 24 square feet.
“I’m not trying to cause anyone problems,” Herpst said. “I pay my taxes, we pick up our mess, we don’t sell anything illegal. I just want to be able to make a living. Most of the vendors out here are the same way.”
Herpst said the permit application was relatively painless but that the restrictions on where he can operate make doing business along the Ocean Beach boardwalk nearly impossible.
“If you include all the restrictions in the ordinance, there’s not a lot of vending opportunities at that location anymore,” Winkie said. “Some vendors realized this is coming into effect and decided to set up where they’re allowed to.”
“I’m not trying to cause anyone problems. I pay my taxes, we pick up our mess, we don’t sell anything illegal. I just want to be able to make a living. Most of the vendors out here are the same way.”
— Mark Herpst, sidewalk vendor
Hamidi said the restrictions have prompted him to seek opportunities outside San Diego.
“I’ve decided to leave this city,” he said. “I have to take me and my family, my kids. Thousands of vendors are like me; they’re considering leaving. I think the economy will leave. Look how empty it is. People went because ... they think it’s not fair.”
“We found that people would be more reluctant to get behind a redesign of Veterans Plaza until they felt it was something people could use,” Winkie said. “People would say, ‘Well, there’s no point because no one can use it because it’s covered with vending.’”
The OB MainStreet Association says it is looking for funding to redo the plaza’s grassy area so it will be ready for late spring and early summer.