City ban on unpermitted business in parks, beaches takes effect Monday

A Los Angeles city ordinance that bans unlicensed commerce in city parks and on beaches takes effect Monday. Among those affected are street vendors.
A Los Angeles city ordinance that bans unlicensed commerce in city parks and on beaches takes effect Monday. Among those affected are street vendors.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The kitchen of Alfonso Garcia’s small home in Lakeview Terrace was overflowing with food preparation Friday night. Beef for tacos marinated in one big pot; next to it sat an equally big pot of beans. Wearing an apron, he stirred a simmering pot of hot sauce on the stove.

"This is a a sauce from Michoacan called 'chile de hormiga,' Garcia said in Spanish, explaining that it's called 'ant chile' because of its grainy appearance. "It's very spicy."

Garcia was prepping for what he hopes will be a big weekend selling tacos and fixings at the nearby Hansen Dam Recreation Center, a park that's popular with street vendors.

It may not be for much longer.

Los Angeles city officials have reintroduced an ordinance that bans unlicensed commerce in city parks and on beaches. It kicks in this Monday, and it applies to everything from fitness boot camps to street food sales. Offenders could be subject to steep penalties.

For several years, pending litigation suspended the ban, and police in parks were relatively hands-off. While unlicensed street food sales have long been illegal in Los Angeles, some street vendors figured out that parks were a relatively safe place to do business.

"Some vendors used to run into parks and realize that officers wouldn't follow them," said Fernando Abarca, an organizer with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, which supports the legalization of street vending in the city.

Police could still issue other citations - for loitering, for example - but some vendors found their niche in city parks.

Earlier this year, after the city resolved its legal issues, the City Council put the park sales ban back in place. Vendor organizers like Abarca have been out in the parks lately, warning vendors about the new rules.

"We're on the ground, talking to vendors in different parts of the city," Abarca said. "Vendors will have to make up their minds as to whether to go out. But at least they'll be informed."

The change puts street vendors who work in parks in a bind. City officials have said one of the main goals of enforcing the new regulations is to regulate a boom in unlicensed fitness trainers in city parks, seen as a potential liability issue.

But there's a process for these operations to obtain permits. A fitness boot camp instructor may apply for a city license and pay a fee to operate legally.

"If you're at a park and you're doing an exercise class or yoga, and you want to get a permit, you could simply go to the park office and speak to the Recreation and Parks director of that park, and they have the ability to issue permits," said Kevin Regan, Los Angeles' assistant general manager for Recreation and Parks.

Street vendors, however, can't get permits. The city has a permit process for large food concessionaires, but not for pushcart-type food sellers. City officials have been considering a proposal since last year that would create a permit process, but it hasn't happened yet.

If these vendors stay in parks, they'll be subject to costly fines, and possible misdemeanor offenses for repeat violations. If they go back to the sidewalk - that's illegal, too.

Regan said some fears might be overblown, because chances are police will focus on egregious offenders - say, for example, a food vendor who repeatedly sets up in front of a park food concessions stand.

"The practicality of it is that most often police, rangers, law enforcement in the city are simply going to issue a warning," Regan said. "This is a very low-level issue, unless there's a particular problem."

But Garcia, the taco vendor, said he's already seen more police presence. He said he was upset at the prospect of having to move, because he's done good business in the same spot for five years.

“I’ve always been at the park in Hansen Dam," Garcia said. "I have the same customers. Thank God,  I’m always busy. They like the tacos I make for them."

He's said he's been warned about the ban taking effect, and is weighing alternatives. He said he recently obtained permission to sell at a nearby farmer's market. If that works out, he might try a second farmer's market, too.

But the park is just a few blocks away. For the near future, at least, he said he might see how it goes.

"This is how we make a living," Garcia said.