As LA contemplates legal street vending, a look at other local policies

A fruit vendor on Figueroa Street in Highland Park.
A fruit vendor on Figueroa Street in Highland Park.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles is contemplating a citywide ordinance that would allow street vendors to take out permits and sell their wares legally. If this happens, L.A. would be the biggest city next to New York to have a legal street vending program.

But locally, some nearby municipalities already allow limited street vending.

One recent warm afternoon outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Crescencio Martinez sold ice cream to patrons, unworried even with police nearby.

"The police don’t bother me," said Martinez, who displayed a Pasadena health permit on his small ice cream cart.

He lives in Los Angeles, in El Sereno. That's where he used to sell, as many vendors still do. But street vending is illegal in Los Angeles, as Martinez soon found out.

"They gave me two tickets," he said. "So I came here.”

These days Martinez pays about $400 a year in city fees, plus a monthly commissary fee. He says it's worth it.

Pasadena is one of a handful of local cities where street vendors are allowed to operate legally, with tight rules. In Pasadena, vendors must take out a business license and obtain city health permit, which must affixed to carts.

"It's in their interest to display the fact that they have a health permit," said William Boyer, a city spokesman. "If they do not have their health permit prominently displayed, they are not legal."

While those selling in spaces like parks can set up for longer, vendors selling on the street in residential neighborhoods must move every five minutes. Martinez says he's okay with it.

"If I don’t move, I get a ticket," he said. "So I move, that's all."

In Santa Ana, the city allows up to 200 pushcart vendors to operate legally. About 20 vendors are allowed to take out stationary spots downtown, but the rest also have to be on the move.

"The idea is, because they are pushcarts, they are supposed to be moving," said Alvaro Nuñez, who heads code enforcement for Santa Ana. "That is the intention. The idea is to walk and vend."

Nuñez said there's not a specified time limit, but that vendors "can't obstruct pedestrian access or vehicle views."

Santa Ana vendors must also obtain health clearance from the county and a pay for city business license. Nuñez said their operating overhead is typically $600 to $800 a year.

Bell Gardens caps permitted vendors at a much smaller number: Only 14 vendors are allowed, half of those selling fruit, the rest ice cream. There's a long waiting list, said Hailes Soto, an associated city planner with the city.

And as is happens in Santa Ana and Pasadena, there are vendors who skip the permit process and go about selling their products illegally, much as they do in L.A.

"Once summer comes along and it starts getting warmer, there will be people that start vending without a license," Soto said.

These kinds of limits - from caps to geographic vending zones to time limits - are what vendor advocates in Los Angeles say they don't want.

"Ordinances that restrict vendors, or the mobility of vendors...these are overly restrictive programs, and they have the unintended effect of discouraging compliance," said Doug Smith with Public Counsel, a non-profit legal organization that's one several pushing for an L.A. vending ordinance.

Los Angeles officials have been holding public meetings to gather input on a proposal to legalize street vending, introduced last year by City Council members Curren Price and Jose Huizar.

To date, street vending in Los Angeles isn't allowed. There's one notable exception: Venice Beach, where a limited number of "performance" vendor stalls are allotted for artists on the ocean-facing side of the Boardwalk. But they can't sell food or resale merchandise, only original art - for example, paintings or music CDs created by the vendor.

At a recent city-sponsored community meeting in Boyle Heights, proponents said they wanted as few limits as possible for street vendors, while merchants and other opponents said they wanted tight controls.

Nicole Shahenian with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce said didn't oppose street vending in general, but was hoping for an opt-out for business zones like Hollywood Boulevard.

"There's already an overabundance of, not only sidewalk vendors, but street characters and CD vendors and tour bus operators out there soliciting," Shahenian told KPCC. "It has already created a huge public safety nightmare for the LAPD, and for our business improvement district patrols. If they expand it and legalize it with a one-size fits all policy, its really just going to exacerbate the problem."

An attempt to create street vending districts in the 1990s resulted in a vending zone set up in McArthur Park, but the plan faltered; vendors inside the park had to pay steep fees to operate and abide by strict rules, while vendors outside the park zone remained unregulated.

Los Angeles' next public meeting on street vending is set for Thursday at City Hall.