Street vendors frustrate business owners
A task force requests that a “city entity” be created to oversee new food locations
By Madeleine Thompson
It was a move born of frustration. Last week the Community Board 8 Vendor Task Force passed a resolution — pending approval by the full board — to request that a “city entity be formed to address and oversee locations for food and general merchandise street vendors.” In response to business owners’ complaints that a wave of new street vendors has been intruding on revenues since the opening of the Second Avenue subway, the task force requested that such an entity be established to process and respond more directly to community input.
A bundle of legislation known as the Street Vendor Modernization Act, which was introduced into the City Council last fall, proposes to do just this by creating an advisory panel to model the bills’ rollout, as well as by increasing the number of vending permits available and updating the rules for street vending. “The system in which [vendors] have been licensed and regulated has been dysfunctional for years,” Council Member Mark Levine, a major sponsor of the bills, said in October. “The establishment of a Street Vendor Advisory Board and the creation of a first-of-its-kind Office of Street Vendor Enforcement will ensure fairness and consistency in the way street vendors are regulated.”
While the new Second Avenue subway was under construction, Upper East Side business owners suffered waning profits behind tall fences and roadblocks that hindered customer access. Mary Silva, owner of Maz Mezcal on East 86th Street, estimated last fall that her business had declined between 30 and 50 percent. Now, some business owners are saying the influx of street vendors is hurting their recovery. “With all the vendors there in front of the restaurant, we’ve started to suffer again,” Francisco Quijada, who owns an interior design shop at East 72nd and Second Avenue, said at last Tuesday’s meeting. “My business begins to smell like a rotting egg with all the vendors, all that smoke, all this cooking.”
Michele Birnbaum, co-chair of the vendor task force, said after the meeting that vendors’ locations are a main focus of the committee. “[Vendors] tend to go in front of a business that sells like merchandise,” she said. “When the Second Avenue subway opened and the construction materials were removed you were left with this corridor of open sidewalk, so it was an invitation for vendors to line up.”
But brick-and-mortars weren’t the only ones desperate for the new line to open; street vendors who had been in the area just as long were displaced entirely. Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, has heard the community board’s claims before. “[CEO of Gristedes Foods] John Catsimatidis used to complain that there were all these vendors outside of his stores ... and so we went to every one, and there were five or six vendors that were across the street or down the block, and there were zero that were selling right out in front,” said Basinski, calling the members of the task force “professional complainers.”
He added that he often hears racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic undertones in the conversations held on this topic. “Sometimes they have no particular complaint about vendors except that there are vendors,” Basinski said. “I live on the Upper East Side, so I can say that about my neighborhood.” Basinski credited Council Member Ben Kallos with getting local business owners to “see the vendors as a positive resource,” and cited a recent compromise with the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association over one vendor’s intrusive neon sign as an example of the vendors’ willingness to have a dialogue with the community.
Attendees at the community board meeting last week also spoke out against the Street Vendor Modernization Act more generally. Armando Crescenzi, a member of the Veterans First organization, called the push for more street vending permits “an abomination.” Expressing frustration over the difficulty of acquiring permits for veterans and those with disabilities, Crescenzi suggested that areas that want more street vendors be required to petition for them. Under the Street Vendor Modernization Act, 35 of the 600 additional permits issued by the Department of Health would be reserved for veterans and those with disabilities.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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