Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Summary

The long-awaited rules for street vendors approved Tuesday establish a permitting system that legitimizes the micro-businesses' role in the city’s economy and aim to appease some community concerns by restricting access to beach and tourist areas. 

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Street vendors selling tamales, trinkets or ice cream pops have used San Diego’s sidewalks to sell their goods for years, creating a sort of informal economy in the process.  

On Tuesday, San Diego’s City Council adopted vending rules that establish a vendor permitting system, lay out enforcement and education practices and create entrepreneurship zones. The rules, though touted as too restrictive by some and too lenient by others, have in a sense legitimized these kinds of small business owners. 

“Street vending is a legitimate form of entrepreneurship and it’s often the only viable path to start a business especially those from less privileged backgrounds,” said Council President Sean Elo-Rivera.  “The folks who are street vendors, at least in my district, are extremely hardworking. They bring vibrancy, community character and support to our local economy just like small businesses do because at their core, street vendors are small businesses.”  

The city had to pass the new rules after the state passed a law that aimed to decriminalize sidewalk vending. California’s Sidewalk Safe Vending Act, SB 946, prevents cities from cracking down on vendors for reasons unrelated to public health, safety and public space access. It also allows cities to adopt restrictions in parks to prevent a concentration of commercial activity that would hamper the scenic and natural characteristics of the space, according to a city staff report.  

Although some advocates warned during Tuesday’s Council meeting that the ordinance could hurt poor and immigrant families, others felt that it made changes requested by community organizations and vendors. 

Alexis Villanueva, a senior program manager of economic development with the City Heights Community Development Corporation, said the new rules encourage the growth of vendors and legitimize their role in the economy.  

Villanueva has spent the last couple of years collecting feedback from vendors on the rules the city was considering. She said the goal for vendors they work with has never been to get away with stuff, but to build sustainability for their small businesses.  

“This ordinance is a start of what we hope to be a bigger conversation on opportunities,” Villanueva said. “Vending is a byproduct of societal inequalities that still remain in our communities where there’s little to no investment.”   

Residents in communities that have seen a large increase in vendors over the last year have raised concerns about health and safety — complaining about trash, reduced sidewalk space and loss of public spaces such as parks and beach areas used often by vendors.  

Business owners and merchant organizations, meanwhile, have complained that vendors pose unfair competition to brick-and-mortar stores. Under the state’s law, cities are prohibited from adopting rules to curb competition.  

Rebecca Rybczyk, manager of economic development and government affairs for the San Diego Downtown Partnership, said during the meeting that the area has seen the brunt of “chaos” brought on by the number of vendors in downtown sidewalks.  

She said the ordinance offers street vendors a pathway to formally be part of the economy while holding them to the same standards as other businesses.  

Councilwoman Vivan Moreno did not support the ordinance.  

“I’ve never received a complaint about a roaming street vendor in District 8 and in fact, many roaming street vendors that operate in the communities of District 8 are appreciated members of the community,” she said.  

Moreno said the city’s ordinance was too broad, and that she suspected that the “high traffic” sidewalks were identified because they are areas where people don’t want street vendors.  

“I’m a proud resident of San Ysidro and we host the world’s busiest land port crossing of the world,” she said. “Our sidewalks are some of the busiest in the city, but the ordinance does not consider it a high traffic area.” 

The street vending rules have been in the making for several years.  

Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration proposed a street vending ordinance in 2019 that would have kept vendors out of tourist-heavy areas such as downtown, La Jolla Shores and areas of Balboa Park. It also proposed a year-round prohibition of vendors from certain areas.  

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell’s office took over the efforts last year. She has said the goal of the ordinance is to balance the need to ensure public safety and encourage these types of businesses.  

“This ordinance will help provide the appropriate support to vendors while promoting equitable access to our public spaces and protecting the public health and safety of our communities,” Campbell said Tuesday during the meeting.  

Vendors must now obtain permits from the city to legally operate. The cost of the permit is still under consideration, but city staff expect that it will not be “cost-prohibitive,” according to a staff report.  

The permit requirement will be effective by June 1.  

The city plans to work with community-based organizations to educate vendors on the new rules and permit processes. The community organization would also assist vendors who are given warnings for violations, which include written warnings and citations from $200 to $1,000.  

The rules include that the city may impound vending equipment and goods, if there is a violation related to leaving vending equipment unattended, selling prohibited goods or not having a valid permit.  

Unlike the city’s prior street vending rules, which applied to “roaming vendors” (think pushcarts), these new rules differentiate between roaming vendors and vendors at fixed locations. The biggest difference is that those who set up merchandise or food on tables are not allowed to operate in residential areas.  

Residential areas are still open to vendors with pushcarts that only stop on the sidewalk when making a sale, though they are limited to working between 7 a.m. and sunset.  

There are vending restrictions in the neighborhoods of the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and Old Town. It also bans vendors from areas with high pedestrian traffic such as near the Convention Center, Petco Park, Pechanga Arena and in bike-and shared-used paths. Bans are also included for Balboa Park, other parks and coastal sidewalks during the city’s summer moratorium.  

The ordinance includes the creation of entrepreneurship zones, which would be designated by the city, and allow vendors to sell in those areas. That addition was especially exciting for some, but other advocates felt that there was little information in the ordinance about how those zones will work and what funding is available to create them.  

Venus Molina, Campbell’s chief of staff, said city staff plans to create groups that include vendors, community members and staff to ensure the rules and entrepreneurship zones are implemented fairly.  

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, Managing Editor, Daily News Andrea oversees the production of daily news stories for Voice of San Diego. She...

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6 Comments

  1. I believe that, in their application, vendors will have to identify whether they are solo entrepreneurs, “micro-businesses,” or working on behalf of an outside supplier. I hope that, after a year, the city analyzes this information to determine if we are indeed helping solo entrepreneurs or just providing large distributors low-cost outlets.

    1. Chuck Downing, has our City Council ever created something with a sunset clause or mandatory review after a year? Seems to make sense; measure success of this ordinance and adjust if needed.

      But there is no political gain to be made from accountability.

      Our representatives must appear to be all-knowing experts who can perfectly predict the future. They’ll all be lined up for photo opportunities when the first underprivileged person gets a pushcart license.
      But don’t try to get a councilperson’s attention if some opportunist takes advantage of citizens because of a “flaw” in this perfect ordinance.

      1. Sir, this is Smiechowski in Bay Ho a candidate for D2 SDCC. Your idea makes sense and I invite you to my home and/or Midway event this Thursday. Daniel 858 405 5118 I really appreciate your insight and vision.

  2. Sounds like a needed positive development.
    I wonder if this will reduce the number of carts and tables and tents along the walkway down the middle of Balboa Park. That’s what I like to see.

  3. It is very disappointing that Balboa Park and other areas like the beaches have only a summertime ban and not year round. Balboa Park right now in winter looks like a swap meet with all the vendors and their pop-up tents. They create barriers that you have to navigate around to access the fountain, the arcades and the Organ Pavilion. The park and beaches get lots of wintertime visitors, not just in summer. Take a walk through the central plaza area on Sunday afternoon and see what a mess it is.

    1. A careful reading of the ordinance suggests that there will be a ban on Ocean Front Walk (the Mission/Pacific Beach boardwalk), for example, year-round. Specifically, vendors are disallowed year-round, “within 15 feet of any high-traffic bike and shared use path.” Then, “High-traffic bike and shared use path means Bayside Walk; Bayshore Bikeway; Ocean Front Walk; Crown Point Bike Path; La Jolla Shores Boardwalk; Liberty Station NTC Path; Mission Bay Bike Path; MLK Promenade; Ocean Boulevard Bike Path; Ocean Beach Bike Path; and San Diego River Bike Path.”

      Vending is allowed on certain side streets , with exceptions. For example not within 100 feet of a fire station or lifeguard station driveway.

      As for Balboa Park, there is a seasonal element, but year-round, “Vending activities are prohibited in the following locations in Balboa Park: (1) within 25 feet of: El Prado, Village Place, Pan American Road East, Pan American Road West, Pan American Plaza, Old Globe Way, Chapel Road, Spanish Village, Plaza de Panama, Plaza de California, Plaza de Balboa, War Memorial Building, the Carousel, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Presidents Way, or any covered walkway. (2) within 25 feet of the following gardens: 1935 Old Cactus Garden, Alcazar Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Desert Garden, Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve, Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Marston House Garden, Palm Canyon, Trees for Health Garden, Veterans Memorial Garden, and Zoro Garden. (3) within 50 feet of the Botanical Building or Lily Pond. (4) within Balboa Park between December 25 and January 1.”

      And city-wide vendors must be 100 feet apart.

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