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Op-ed: Roosevelt Avenue needs Street Vendor Review Panel

BY STATE SENATOR JOSE PERALTA 

Walk along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and Corona, and everywhere you go you’ll see small businesses, the vast majority of which are mom-and-pop operations.

These businesses, including the street vending carts and stands, sustain families and breathe life into the community.

From early in the morning until well into the evening, you’ll come across rows of street vendors offering up a smorgasbord of tasty dishes from throughout Latin America, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, books, homemade trinkets and on and on. All this amidst a sea of commuters and shoppers flowing in out of the subway stations and many retail stores along the avenue.

If the scene looks more than a little chaotic, it’s because it is.

The city has a jumble of overlapping and confusing regulations governing the rights and obligations of street vendors. But for all of the rules and regulations, nobody is happy with the system. Not local residents; not brick-and-mortar retailers; and certainly not the street vendors themselves.

Local residents regularly complain to me about sanitation issues and congestion on streets and sidewalks.

Restaurants, diners and fruit stores complain about carts setting up directly in front of their businesses to sell the same kind of food they do.

Other brick-and-mortar businesses complain that the smell and smoke from cooking food in front of their stores, along with the congestion and litter, drives away customers.

And the street vendors complain about petty and excessive city fines and the caps on the number of licenses. Because of the caps on licenses, you have unregulated vendors and even a black market for licenses. I’ve heard of street vendors having to pay as much as $24,000 for an illegal two-year rental of a license.

In order for the street vendors and brick-and-mortar retailers to peacefully and profitably coexist on Roosevelt Avenue and other commercial strips throughout the five boroughs, the city needs to do something, and it needs to start by making sense of the street vending regulations.

That’s why I’m urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconvene the defunct Street Vendor Review Panel and charge it with making sense of the myriad, often overlapping and confusing city regulations governing the rights and obligations of street vendors.

A new Street Vendor Review Panel with a broad, holistic mandate and representatives of street vendors, business owners and community interests is the right entity to study these issues and make appropriate recommendations.

In addition to revising the regulations governing street vendors, I would want the panel to:

• Eliminate the black market for street vendor permits by lifting the current cap on permits and rescinding those of individuals who illegally rent them out.
• Create zoning regulations and incentive structures to reduce sidewalk and street congestion and achieve a more efficient distribution of vendor locations.
• Enact a letter-grade system for mobile food vendors, in accordance with my bill (S. 43-A-2014), to further legitimize the vast majority of street vendors, who sell safe, healthy and delicious food.
• Reduce fines for minor issues and focus enforcement on serious health, safety, traffic and sanitation violations.
• Create and promote designated community spaces where street vendors can congregate to sell food without exacerbating congestion issues.

Inaction on issues surrounding street vendors has allowed enmity and confusion to fester where what’s needed is cooperation, understanding and common purpose.

Small businesses and bustling commercial corridors like Roosevelt Avenue are far too important to the city’s economy for the government to continue to do nothing.

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