Concerns raised as San Diego launches enforcement of long-awaited street vendor law
Weak enforcement, delayed implementation along coast worry merchants, neighborhood leaders
Enforcement of San Diego’s long-awaited street vendor crackdown begins Wednesday, potentially bringing an end to three years of chaos that has dramatically changed the look and feel of many popular city locations.
Community leaders and merchant groups say they’re cautiously optimistic the new city law will make a big difference, but some are concerned about inadequate enforcement.
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Others are frustrated the new law won’t take effect in coastal areas for several months while the city awaits Coastal Commission approval, possibly flooding those areas with even more vendors fleeing tougher restrictions in inland areas.
Meanwhile, leaders in Mission Beach say vendors should immediately be banned in areas around Belmont Park because of a 1980s ballot measure they say the city has been failing to enforce for many years.
Supporters call measure the right balance; critics say it’s racist because most vendors are immigrants of color
Critics continue to say the city’s new vendor law is too punitive and aggressive, stressing that it bans vendors from most high-traffic and profitable areas. They also say it has racist overtones because most vendors are immigrants of color.
City officials characterize the new law as the right balance between fostering vendors as a new class of entrepreneurs and preventing them from damaging the character of parks, beach areas and business districts.
“San Diego has long awaited these regulations that will bring vendors into the formal economy and ensure access to San Diego’s public spaces for all,” said Councilmember Dr. Jennifer Campbell, who spearheaded the new law.
Cities across California have had to react to SB 946, a 2018 state law that decriminalized sidewalk vending but allowed cities to impose limited regulations if they focus only on health and safety — not keeping vendors out.
San Diego recently started issuing permits that vendors will need to continue operating under the new law. Vendors who serve food will also need a county health permit and a food handler’s card.
The city will enforce the permit requirements and other elements of the new law, such as where vending is allowed, with a team of code enforcement officers — not police officers.
“I hope it will make a difference,” said Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. “I’ll have a very good sense after the first day.”
Trimble successfully persuaded the City Council, which approved the new law 8-1 in May, to partially ban vendors from the entire Gaslamp Quarter. But he noted Tuesday that some Gaslamp vendors aren’t mom-and-pop operations, but larger-scale efforts where multiple hot dog vendors work for the same company.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort to dismantle the hot dog operators downtown,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot more than just coming out a couple times and giving people warnings.”
Larry Webb, president of the Mission Beach Town Council, expressed similar concerns.
The new city law includes fines and possible impoundment of vendor pushcarts for rules violations. But Webb noted that it would take as many as four violations for vendors to experience fines and penalties that really matter.
Webb is also frustrated city officials have decided not to start enforcing the ban in the coastal zone — essentially any land west of Interstate 5 — until the California Coastal Commission can consider the new law and possibly amend it.
He said Santa Monica and some other coastal cities have enforced street vendor crackdowns in recent years without Coastal Commission approval.
A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott said Tuesday that Elliott’s reasoning for seeking such approval before launching enforcement along the coast is confidential.
“There is no public memo on this topic,” said the spokeswoman, Leslie Wolf Branscomb.
Webb said enforcing the law inland and not on the coast will prompt vendors facing new restrictions everywhere else in the city to flood the coast.
“We’ve seen a big increase in the last several weeks,” said Webb, estimating that there are roughly 100 vendors in the area on weekdays and many more on weekends.
Webb also thinks Mission Beach could be saved from vendor chaos by a sort of magic bullet. He says city voters approved a ballot measure in the 1980s aimed at upgrading Belmont Park by banning retail operations there except the brick-and-mortar businesses in the park.
He said the city hasn’t enforced the measure in many years, but could start enforcing it now.
In Ocean Beach, community leaders say Veterans Plaza near the pier is overrun by vendors and could get worse because of the city’s plan to delay enforcement on the coast.
“We’re hoping the Coastal Commission will take this up quickly and stop the chaos,” said Denny Knox, leader of the Ocean Beach Main Street Association. “It seems unreasonable for communities to have to deal with this. It was never meant to be a swap meet.”
Knox said there is some cautious optimism that the city’s approval of the new law will prompt vendors to move to new locations immediately, instead of waiting for the Coastal Commission.
“We’re hoping these vendors see the writing on the wall and know it’s not going to be a long-term shtick,” she said.
There have also been complaints about vendors taking over Scripps Park at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla and parts of Balboa Park.
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 on main thoroughfares in some business districts, like Little Italy and Ocean Beach. Vendors can continue operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.
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.
To help vendors prepare, in-person workshops have been hosted in both English and Spanish this spring by the Logan Heights Community Development Corporation.
Fee, which will be $38 instead of $230, is part of new law that limits where vendors can operate.
The law also 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.
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