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Move to Legalize Street Vending Sparks Opposition

Street vending is illegal in Los Angeles. Yet as every Downtown worker or resident knows, it flourishes in the Central City, with hot dog sellers, clothing hawkers and more often popping up on sidewalks.

Now, a pair of City Council members has embarked on an effort to legalize and regulate the practice, arguing that doing so would bring vendors out of the shadows and allow them to contribute to the local economy. That, however, has sparked an outcry from some local business and community leaders, who worry that the move would hamper Downtown’s revitalization and harm brick-and-mortar businesses. They also believe the city simply can’t regulate a swell of newly empowered vendors.

“Downtown is a unique community, and sidewalk vending can get in the way of growing a neighborhood,” said Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District. “If the city implements a new framework for street vending, that’s one thing. But where is it getting the resources to maintain it? I like the happy world of regulation, but I don’t think it’s the reality.”

The implications of street vending have been discussed for years, and in November 14th District City Councilman José Huizar and Ninth District rep Curren Price authored a motion to look at legalizing the practice. In May, the Chief Legislative Analyst’s office issued a seven-page preliminary report recommending Los Angeles adopt a citywide street vending program. 

Although details are still being worked out, the early plan involves creating a regulatory structure with a slew of rules regarding where vendors can work, how many can operate on a block, how far they must be from storefront businesses, what fees they need to pay and more. No timeline for implementation has been revealed.

Huizar said government involvement is required because the status quo is unsustainable and hurts both storefront shops and vendors alike.

“The system we have right now, no matter where you stand on the debate, it’s broken and everyone needs a regulatory system,” Huizar said. “We need to allow vendors to sell their wares while putting mechanisms in place to protect brick-and-mortar businesses.”

Although street vending is ubiquitous in Downtown, it is most pronounced in the Fashion District, where dozens of mobile food carts and clothing and accessory vendors can set up shop on weekends. The Historic Core also sees numerous vendors, and South Park sidewalks swell when large events take place at Staples Center or L.A. Live.

While she says she understands the argument that vendors are just trying to earn a living, Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, said that they can create problems in a neighborhood. Sidewalk blockages caused by vendors can force pedestrians to walk in a street filled with cars, Besten said. She added that people have been burned by hot griddles on mobile food carts.

Unscrupulous vendors also leave behind piles of trash, she said. She recalled an incident in which a vendor dumped his hot dog water into an alley by the Flower Street Lofts, attracting a clan of hungry rats.

“We had to call our team to go clean that mess up,” Besten said. “It’s not fair for the businesses who are paying us for clean-and-safe crews to have to deal with these street vendors.”