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Every Saturday, vendors line the sidewalks along Barrio Logan’s business block selling food, desserts and Latino-inspired clothing and merchandise. Two local businesses owners launched the event, called Walk the Block, to draw visitors back to the area after COVID-related shutdowns brought everything to a halt.
During Walk the Block, customers stroll down Logan Avenue admiring dozens of colorful murals and zigzagging from the brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants to street vendor booths. Laid across foldable tables are handmade earrings, Selena Quintanilla t-shirts and unique pieces by local artists.
It’s become a major part of the vendors’ livelihoods and yet it’s not clear how long they will be allowed to do it. The city of San Diego is right now crafting rules to balance the opportunities street vending provides people who want to build businesses with nuisances that have driven complaints in some parts of town.
The city has spent two years mulling how to regulate sidewalk vendors since the state passed a law that encourages those types of small business ventures. Known as the Sidewalk Safe Vending Act, SB 946 decriminalized street vending by prohibiting cities from passing restrictions unrelated to public health, safety and public space access. The state law also requires cities to update existing vending rules that don’t comply.
That’s what Council President Jennifer Campbell is doing next month by presenting a new proposed ordinance to the City Council.
Street vendors agree the city should have some rules, and think they could help it clarify what’s allowed. But as they wait to read the proposed rules, some are urging city officials to consider the economic opportunities street vending offers a diverse group of entrepreneurs and hope the rules don’t severely limit access to tourist-heavy areas.
“Street vending is often a path for a storefront,” said Claudia Biezunski-Rodriguez, owner of clothing store Sew Loka. “It creates an equitable path for starting a business because getting a space can be hard.”
Biezunski-Rodriguez and Alexandria Perez Demma, who runs a shop in Barrio Logan, started the weekly shopping event to help businesses in the neighborhood, but discovered it also presented an opportunity for street vendors to promote merchandise and test the market – enough for some to transition from street vending to running shops in the community.
“That’s where I got the push,” said Jen Cardona, owner of Thirty Flirty shop. “Without getting that exposure, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Cardona, a mother of two, launched her clothing brand during the pandemic and relied on street vending to share her designs, now she’s operating from a small shop in Barrio Logan. The walls of her shop are covered with shirts that read, “Mujer you are worthy,” and “Girls just want to have fundamental human rights.”
Street vendors using the city’s sidewalks to research their customer base isn’t surprising to Alexis Villanueva, senior program manager of economic development with the City Heights Community Development Corporation.
She has helped food vendors build their businesses and secure grants. The City Heights CDC is one of several nonprofit organizations urging the city to change its view of street vendors and shift from requiring regulation to offering tools to grow.
“Imagine a policy and a city that is supportive of street vendors … and growth,” she said.
In 2019, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed a street vending ordinance that would have kept vendors out of tourist heavy areas such as downtown, La Jolla Shores and areas of Balboa Park. There were also time restrictions in the proposal.
But there was backlash from street vendors and advocates who argued that the proposed ordinance would put many out of business, and some felt it lacked input from actual vendors.
The city tried addressing that by hosting community workshops to collect input in October 2019 – but with ahead of a December Council hearing, it struck many as window dressing, not a genuine opportunity to provide feedback.
That proposal fizzled, as push back, and eventually the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the administration’s attention, staff told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Something needs to get done, though, because the city’s current rules don’t match up with the state, said Venus Molina, chief of staff for Campbell.
The rules today only focus on pushcart vendors, not those who set up booths along city sidewalks — which the city says have flooded beach communities since the state passed SB 946. Campbell’s ordinance would repeal the city’s current law and apply the new rules to both types of vendors, Molina said.
The office used Faulconer’s ordinance as a starting point, Molina said, but it will be clear once it’s released that it has an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We are looking at short-term and long-term plans,” she said.
The office doesn’t have a count of how many street vendors operate in San Diego, aside from some information from a survey done last year, so it is relying on feedback from advocates and other stakeholders.
In Ocean Beach, vendors cram into a small park space selling gemstones, hot dogs and clothing. The vendors started setting up weekly on Wednesdays when the neighborhood hosts its farmer’s market, but it’s become a daily thing along the beach.
Vendors see the area as a prime spot for customers given the neighborhood’s tourist heavy foot traffic, but residents have repeatedly complained about trash and loss of public space.
Residents and merchant groups have pressed the city for rules that would prevent street vendors from setting up near the beaches, but vendors argue that preventing them from vending in the area would upend their livelihood.
“This is not my second job, it’s not my hobby, there’s literally a sewing machine in my face, this is my life,” said Mylor Davis, while adding a patch to a pair of jeans.
Davis designs clothing and sells it on Wednesdays in Ocean Beach and sometimes at swap meets. He’s recently sold some socks to a nearby gift shop, he said. He understands residents and business owners are frustrated about the number of vendors that gather at the beach – it also poses challenges for him as there is more competition. But he doesn’t see preventing vendors from selling in the area as a solution.
Molina said the new ordinance will have health and safety in mind. She said the plan is to review it every year to see if it needs changes.
Denezel Bynum, a former street vendor in downtown, recently traded in a small grill for a food truck. He said the change from street vending to running a food truck has been nice, given that rules are clearer when it comes to the licenses and permits required to run the business.
“As a street food vendor, it’s hard,” said Bynum, founder of Average Joe’s Burgers.
Bynum worked as a club bouncer for years before making the jump to street vending. He sold savory bagels from a corner downtown, but the new enterprise, although lucrative, brought negative attention from nearby business owners and fines from the county.
When the pandemic hit, and the city’s center was a ghost town, he managed to make ends meet by moving his wife, and newborn son, to his mother’s Skyline home and selling burgers from her backyard. When the landlord complained, he moved his business to Rolando where he rented a bar’s outdoor patio and sold burgers, but that didn’t work out for long.
Eventually he saved up to lease the food truck he operates now. He said it would be helpful if the city considered helping vendors grow, as opposed to punishing them with regulations or restricting areas for vending.
He said if the city doesn’t want vendors on the sidewalks, it should consider opening up lots where multiple vendors can lease space, at a reasonable rate, then they can grow their customer base and grow into bigger businesses.