It's Time to Regulate San Diego's Street Vendors

Created: 22 September, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

This is an independent commentary. Have your own opinion? Write it! Email it to hoa@ivn.us

On the sidewalks throughout San Diego, you may have noticed that booths have set up shop and started selling goods. Sometimes it takes the form of t-shirts. Often it’s a sizzling grill. Maybe you will see crystals or someone’s art. But there is no mistaking that commerce now exists where once only public use was allowed. 

This is a result of former Gov. Jerry Brown signing into law Senate Bill 946 in September 2018. The law’s adopted moniker is the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act and it mandates three major things: (1) Cities cannot ban vending in parks (2) Cities cannot prohibit vendors from a point of operation unless there is a health, safety, or welfare concern (3) Cities cannot require street vendors to ask adjacent businesses for permission. 

Working within these rules, cities are welcome to require licenses and regulate as they see fit. Because San Diego had no licensing system in place prior to the passage of SB 946, street vendors have been able to operate without a business license or food-handling license anywhere they want. The result is all those t-shirt, crystal, and ice cream vendors you see do not have a business permit, a health permit and are not paying sales taxes. 

Two years is a long time to allow this to go unregulated. The City Council needs to stop dragging its feet and pass an ordinance. 

Before the pandemic there was a draft of a street vending ordinance that was being shopped around by the mayor’s office. Operators of street vendors voiced concerns over the beach communities wanting restrictions to how many vendors could be on the boardwalks and shoreline parks during summer. Businesses took issue that street vendors were allowed leeways that brick and mortar stores were not. As a result, the ordinance never made it in front of the full City Council. Then the pandemic hit, and for weeks most businesses were closed while people sheltered in place. 

Slowly, San Diegans began socially distancing outside and the street vendors were the first to resume operating. The brick and mortar stores were still bound by county health restrictions. Now, a lot of businesses have moved their seating outside and are competing for similar spaces that street vendors have taken hold over. Public spaces have seen an alarming real estate shift, from what was once open space to swathes of that space taken up with vendors. 

One can see clearly the problems the lack of a street vending ordinance has caused if they spend a day at Ocean Beach’s seawall and shoreline parks. The public park space at the end of Newport Avenue — which used to be a place for acroyoga, slacklining and other activities — is now overtaken with pop-up tents. The beach parking lots frequently have people parked in a spot all day, using their car as a storefront. How is that an equitable use of space? 

Immediate action is required to bring a balance back to our streets, shorelines and parks. Every San Diegan should be able to move around anywhere in the city with comfort and safety, particularly those San Diegans who need assistance when walking. Without proper regulation of street vendors, the city is putting itself at risk of an ADA lawsuit. 

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In a time where congregating outdoors is the healthiest option, the city and county need to make sure that the residents of San Diego have safe use of parks, sidewalks and open space. 

To make sure of this, the proposed ordinance must include: 

• A minimum width of six feet of sidewalk. 

• Static street vendors need a minimum of spacing between them. 

• Parks should only allow roaming vendors. 

• No vending out of cars parked in public lots. 

• Mandatory distancing from permitted events. 

This is the bare minimum that would be required for street vendors to operate safely and fairly. However I think we can go further. There is a glaring hole in SB 946. Where is the placemaking? 

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If this bill sought to truly elevate and protect these entrepreneurs, it would include incentives for cities to create dedicated spaces for these vendors. A single spot for vendors and customers alike to come. This is a time to lead and give a platform to the smallest business owners in our community. 

The city should go a step further when creating an ordinance and take into account where these vendors come from and what they are selling. Then set-up market-style plazas for them to interact with their communities. While also working with established markets and street fairs to help these businesses navigate how to access them. 

Doing nothing helps no one and harms everyone. Businesses need stability and certainty. Residents deserve their open space. And entrepreneurs should be supported and welcomed into the San Diego economy. None of that can happen without a street vending ordinance. 

This issue will be discussed at the Ocean Beach Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Go to sandiego.gov for more information.

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