Does Venice Really Need More Sidewalk Vending?

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Sidewalk Vending
Columnist Mark Ryavec.
Columnist Mark Ryavec.

The City Council is poised to adopt a new ordinance that will allow some amount of sidewalk vending in the city.  This could take the form a few vendors per block selling food or products in a few areas of the city, or it could result in commercial streets throughout the city being lined with vendors of every stripe.  Recent hearings of the Council’s Economic Development Committee did not make clear exactly where the Council is headed, though there appears to be a consensus that some vending should be allowed.

In the most extreme case, imagine Abbot Kinney, Rose Avenue, Washington Boulevard, some areas of Main Street, Lincoln, and the first couple blocks of Windward lined with carts and stands selling a wide assortment of items, some of them the same items for sale in nearby shops.  Also picture hundreds of additional carts and tables strewn all along the Venice Beach Recreation Area and Boardwalk, since vending in parks is also being considered

As the Council takes testimony on what should be allowed and where it should be allowed, City leaders would be well advised to take a look at Venice’s experience.  Vending on our Boardwalk is the one exception to the City’s ban on sidewalk or park vending, and sales are only allowed under color of the exercise of the vendors’ First Amendment rights.

I recently walked Ocean Front Walk to check out the scene and was surprised that there actually is a lot of original art – both good and some very bad. There also were many examples of mass produced items that were not the work of the person staffing the table.  Several vendors also offered henna tattoos, which are made using mass produced templates, not freehand, which in my mind is not original art either.

Vending along the Boardwalk causes problems beyond the occasional violation of the municipal code. The police tell us that some “artists” are fronts for drug sales. Some vendors store their wares, tables and carts in vehicles permanently parked on nearby streets, denying these spaces to residents. Others block nearby sidewalks with their carts, piled high with equipment and products. Some of the vendors do not leave at night as required by the Beach Curfew and many store their stuff in the park, violating the new parks ordinance, which requires that everything leave the park – and Boardwalk – at night. This all contributes to the look and atmosphere of Skid Row West.

For decades the merchants in the brick and mortar shops on the east side of the Boardwalk have complained about the sale of commercial products, as opposed to original art, on the Westside. These vendors posing as artists are able to dramatically undercut the east side merchants since they don’t have to pay rent, taxes, permit fees, utilities or insurance. The lack of city enforcement in Venice’s case raises the question of whether any sidewalk vending regime would be enforced or enforceable. The LAPD and the City Attorney’s Office have generally turned a blind eye to violations on the Boardwalk so I am not assured that they would enforce any controls that are meant to regulate sidewalk vending elsewhere in Venice or the city. Indeed, this concern about enforcement has been raised by several other neighborhood groups.  Without inspectors tasked with just enforcing whatever regulations are set-up, enforcement will likely end up at the bottom of the list for the LAPD, City Attorney’s Office and Bureau of Street Services.

One of the other problems with any sidewalk vending in Venice is the substandard width of our sidewalks. Laid out and built in the early years of the last century, they barely can carry the crowds that regularly visit Venice now.

So, questions of unfair competition, lack of enforcement and sidewalk capacity all need to be addressed, and I would propose they be addressed on a block-by-block basis. That is why our organization has joined some neighborhood councils in arguing that any ordinance legalizing sidewalk vending should contain an “opt-in” provision which could only be exercised by a super-majority (e.g., 67 percent or 60 percent) vote of adjacent property owners.

A Los Angeles Times reporter asked me why this decision should be left to property owners when the sidewalk is a public space. Shouldn’t city officials make this call, he queried.

To start with, sidewalks exist to be just what the name implies – a raised walkway separated from and on the side of the street for pedestrian passage.

However, the City does not own the land under the sidewalk or the parkway (the strip of land typically between the curb and the sidewalk). The fee simple title to the sidewalk and parkway is held by the adjacent property owner. The City just has an easement over the property requiring that it be left undeveloped so that unhindered passage is maintained.

Historically, the City required that the property owner maintain the sidewalk and parkway, and even replace damaged sidewalks.  It was only when the Johnson Administration offered federal funds for sidewalk repairs as part of an economic stimulus package that the City assumed responsibility to repair sidewalks.  The City is now planning to return the responsibility for sidewalk repair to property owners, an acknowledgement that sidewalks and parkways are the possession of the adjacent owner, not the City.

Further to this point, a City ordinance requires that the adjoining owner keep their sidewalks free and clear so as to not thwart the City’s easement.

In the instance of sidewalk vending, the City is considering taking land that it controls under an easement for passage and giving small islands of its easement area to vendors, violating the purpose of the easement. (I could question whether the City even has legal authority to make such grants since the City does not own the sidewalk, but if limited and controlled, such grants may well be de-minimis in their impact on the easement.)

Since the property owner owns the dirt under the parkway and sidewalk, and the City, with sidewalk vending, is proposing to do something that is counter to its easement, I believe the owner must be consulted on whether he or she agrees to such a use of their property.

If you would like to weigh in on this matter, you can write to:

Councilman Curren Price, Chair

Economic Development Committee

Los Angeles City Council City Hall

200 N. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA  90012

Mark Ryavec is president of the Venice Stakeholders Association.

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