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San Diego prepares for street vendor crackdown as complaints intensify

Vendors set up at Scripps Park next to La Jolla Cove.
(Courtesy of Bob Evans)

City is criticized for delaying legislation; vendor advocates say more analysis is needed before adopting a law.

San Diego is considering a crackdown on sidewalk vendors amid an uproar of complaints about unfair competition and illegal dumping of trash and grease in some neighborhoods.

City Council President Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Pacific Beach, Point Loma and Ocean Beach, says she is taking the lead on a new citywide street vending ordinance that will provide clear enforcement guidelines that the city has lacked for nearly three years.

A draft ordinance could go before the City Council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee this fall before possible approval by the full council.

Merchant and other groups in downtown San Diego and some city beach communities say vendors have flooded business districts and parks, with no restrictions, because of a 2018 state law that aims to encourage street vending as a new class of small business.

La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson said pushcart vendors are “a real problem in the beach areas and La Jolla Shores at Kellogg Park in particular. They have no permits to operate and none for food safety.”

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board, which has been monitoring the street vending issue since 2019, has not taken a formal position on it.

“We plan to be very active on the issue when new proposed laws come before the mayor and council members,” said Bob Evans, LJP&B vice president.

Less than a year after the unveiling of the Children’s Pool Plaza, members of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory group (LJP&B) are starting to see it marked with vendors selling their wares.

The board has not received formal complaints from beach-goers or local merchants about street vending, Evans said.

But he added that “sidewalk vending needs to be better managed and prohibited from our La Jolla coastline parks and beaches. The vending and commercialization takes away from the views, crowds the busy walkways and benches, harms the landscaping and adds to unhealthy and unsanitary conditions and trash woes.”

Advocates for street vendors say critics have exaggerated the dangers and chaos created by vendors and that those complaining are mostly businesses frustrated that they are facing new competition from street vendors.

While advocates for vendors say they welcome new city legislation focused on gray areas in state law, they want any policy proposal to be based on data and analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions. They also say the rules should vary by neighborhood.

“What’s happening at the beach and some other areas isn’t happening everywhere,” said Natasha Salgado, community engagement coordinator with the Logan Heights Community Development Corp. “This should be data-driven. They need to know what the state of vending is in the city.”

The controversy comes in the wake of Senate Bill 946, a state law passed in 2018 that says any vendor regulations created by cities must focus on solving health and safety problems, not on limiting economic competition. The law prohibits local governments from banning all vendors or levying criminal penalties against them.

Supporters said the goal of the law was to encourage a new class of small entrepreneurs among California’s low-income residents, many of them immigrants with families.

Since 2018, many cities across the state have passed local ordinances that regulate street vendors in the narrow ways that SB 946 allows.

Vendors offer their wares near La Jolla Cove.
(Courtesy of Bob Evans)

In 2019, then-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed city legislation that was hailed by merchant groups but criticized by advocates for vendors.

Faulconer’s proposal would have banned street vendors in high-traffic neighborhoods and parks, but it was never brought forward for a City Council vote after some critics called it an unfair crackdown with racist overtones.

Current Mayor Todd Gloria, who replaced Faulconer last winter, said in February that he was committed to crafting legislation that would be supported by advocates and critics of street vending.

Before he was elected, Gloria acknowledged that a world without local street vending regulations was a kind of “wild west,” and he committed to gathering input from all sides. He supported SB 946 while a member of the state Assembly.

But work on a city ordinance shifted last spring from Gloria to Campbell.

“I am currently working with the mayor and our city departments to enforce existing law and rein in street vending,” Campbell said by email. “For vending that falls under gray areas of the law, my office is now taking the lead on a citywide street vending ordinance to provide clear enforcement guidelines.”

Nick Serrano, Gloria’s deputy chief of staff, said it makes sense for the mayor to defer to Campbell.

“This issue is particularly prominent in council President Campbell’s district and important to her as the leader of the legislative body, so she is leading the city’s efforts on an ordinance that will create the rules going forward,” Serrano said.

Some beach community leaders say the vendors benefit from an uneven playing field because businesses with storefronts must pay a slew of city and county fees that street vendors don’t have to pay.

“While we support all types of businesses, we feel it should be a level playing field and safe for consumers,” Emerson said. “All vendors should have permits to operate, have insurance and licenses to operate. In addition, any food vendors should have passed regular health and safety inspections.

“The citizens of San Diego deserve better from the city. They need to regulate this activity to keep our residents and visitors safe. Any vendor should welcome such regulation as a protection for them and their business.”

Denezel Bynum cooks bacon as he makes Bully Bagels at his food booth during the City Heights Street Food Festival
Denezel Bynum cooks bacon as he makes Bully Bagels at his food booth during the City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019.
(File / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Denezel Bynum, a street vendor who sells hamburgers in various parts of the city, said merchant groups are exaggerating the size and scope of the problem.

“I understand that they are [upset] when their restaurant is empty and there is a guy selling hot dogs out front,” he said.

Bynum, who has been a street vendor for about two years, said he is open to some local regulations as long as they are reasonable.

“I feel like they should at least allot a certain area for us to operate every day,” he said. “How else are we supposed to survive?”

Bynum said it typically costs $300 or more to become an official vendor at a farmers market and that it requires upfront cash that some vendors don’t always have.

Salgado said many street vendors deal with harassment and other problems and that the last thing they need are strict regulations that aren’t based on an analysis of what’s actually going on.

“We can’t vilify an individual who is trying to create some kind of income for themselves,” she said. ◆