On any given Sunday, Ocean Avenue from the Santa Monica Pier to Wilshire Boulevard is overrun by food trucks offering everything from gyros to hamburgers.
While some visitors may like the variety, the sheer number of trucks raises concerns. Trash piles up, visitors struggle to find convenient street parking and the beautiful views of the Santa Monica Bay are obstructed.
Now imagine that scene, albeit slightly different, on the Third Street Promenade and other heavily used streets in bustling Downtown Santa Monica.
A new state law decriminalizing and expanding street vending, which includes food as well as t-shirts, sunglasses, and other products, on city streets has Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and city officials concerned about pedestrian access, public health and the economic well-being of local brick-and-mortar businesses.
The goal of the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (Senate Bill 946) is to expand economic opportunities for immigrants and those who may be locked out of the workforce because of prior criminal convictions, a lack of an advanced degree or training, or discrimination because of age, race or sexual orientation. The bill has taken on greater importance given changes in immigration enforcement by the Trump administration. Undocumented immigrants who sell their goods on streets are essentially one misdemeanor arrest away from being deported.
SB 946 allows municipalities to establish permit programs for vendors, and they may require sidewalk vendors to obtain a business license and abide by state tax laws, just like other businesses.
Vendors who were previously convicted under local anti-vending laws may petition the court for dismissal of the sentence.
"With Senate Bill 946 we can start seeing sidewalk vendors for who they are – women and seniors, single parents, and micro-business owners taking that first step to starting their own business," said Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who sponsored the bill. "Gov. [Jerry] Brown's signature validates that thousands of sidewalk vendors are an important part of our economy, whose hard work supports their families and gives California its unique flavor."
DTSM, Inc. and city officials are sympathetic to the plight of vendors, and support the expansion of economic opportunities, particularly for minorities, however, that must be weighed against the needs of residents and visitors to be able to move about the downtown and enjoy the beauty of the area without the visual blight of hundreds of street vendors. There is also the need to ensure brick-and-mortar businesses, a significant contributor to the local tax base and a key employment sector, remain competitive.
"Downtown Santa Monica is a very popular place and we are constantly having to balance the needs of many people, from pedestrians and skateboarders, to musicians and those working to raise funds and awareness for various charities," said DTSM, Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson. "There's a lot of demand for our limited sidewalk space so adding street vendors into the mix poses another challenge and one we must consider thoughtfully so that we can ensure people can move throughout the downtown as well as sell their products. We will continue to work with the city to come up with a sensible permitting and regulatory process."
The City of Santa Monica is currently studying the law to see what permitting system to install and how to regulate street vending fairly. The state law is fairly broad, leaving cities with little room to maneuver. Keeping vending off the Promenade and the Pier may prove difficult, if not impossible.
Some options could be limiting the number of street vendors per block and during major events, like the L.A. Marathon where safety is a major concern. Cities could also prohibit vending in parks if it can prove that the vending activity "unreasonably interferes with the scenic and natural character of the park." Certain areas could be off limits, but only if the restriction "is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns."
The City of Los Angeles is considering regulations that would include prohibiting street vending near popular destinations, such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Dodgers Stadium.
The California Downtown Association, which represents the interests of organizations like DTSM, Inc., took a position opposing the bill, and advocated for and secured amendments that allow cities to block vending near certified farmers' markets or areas designated for a temporary special permit.
The law is fairly broad, leaving many questions unanswered. There is hope that in the coming legislative session more amendments can be made to better clarify what restrictions are allowed.
The bill takes effect Jan. 1, 2019.