BY HEATHER J. CHIN AND DENISE ROMANO
The City Council passed a package of legislation that would reduce fines for mobile street vendors on Wednesday, February 27, an action which is being called everything from “totally unfair” to “a major victory,” depending on who in the council you ask.
According to the new legislation, the maximum fine for vending violations would decrease from $1,000 to $500; the bill also would allow vending near hospital no-standing zones, taxi stands and within 20 feet of residential building exits.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the legislation would reduce crowding on sidewalks. “Our bills will end punitive fines and keep our streets safe– making it a win for the city, and a win for New Yorkers,” she said.
Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents North Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights, agreed, stating that the new law “align[s] the penalty with the violation and ensure[s] that vendors can pay their fines.” He added that this “will go a long way towards making life a little easier for our city’s hardworking vendors.”
However, fellow Councilmember Vincent Gentile from Bay Ridge disagreed, criticizing the new rules as “a double standard [for] restaurants on wheels” compared to brick-and-mortar shops that are subject to rents, property taxes, water bills and health inspections.
“We should be leveling the playing field between restaurants on wheels and mom and pop shops,” Gentile said. “Instead, we tipped the scales in favor of restaurants on wheels. It’s just unfair, totally unfair.”
Throughout Brooklyn, food vendor laws have been a hot topic of conversation. Last spring, a group of merchants on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge protested the food cart on the corner of 86th Street, charging that the vendors are not subject to the same rules and regulations as brick-and-mortar stores.
A similar concern has been ongoing for some business owners in Park Slope, where Irene LoRe, president of the Park Slope Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), said that “one of [mobile food vendors’] strategies is to go to a place that is selling the same thing they’re selling. And of course they can sell that product more cheaply. It’s unfair competition supported by the city government.”
She went on to detail how, during the summer, a popular Brooklyn gourmet ice cream truck regularly sets up shop directly across the street from a café that sells homemade gelato and ice cream, and taco trucks often park on the same block as Mexican-themed restaurants.
Also, LoRe added, there’s the sanitation issue, particularly around Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. “”It’s always a pig sty; [this one] guy never sweeps, but the police say it’s legal,” she said. “This is the busiest intersection in Park Slope. . . it’s ridiculous that this guy’s not paying rent.”
Making it worse, she said, is that ” a food truck can pull into where there’s a hydrant, so you have a situation that, if a truck is tended by the driver, they’re not going to get a ticket. It’s infuriating.”
But Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, defended the bill and their 1,500 member vendors, noting that just like brick-and-mortar business owners, “vendors are hardworking men and women who serve their local communities and make this city great.”
Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that many food trucks also have brick-and-mortar locations throughout Brooklyn.
Noted Craig Hammerman, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 6, “the irony is not lost on us that a lot of these mobile food trucks seem to be from our own local businesses. We have the Red Hook Lobster Pound, Christie’s Jamaican Beef Patties from Flatbush Avenue, and other similar local businesses that seem to be following that model. So we’re not quite sure who is benefiting and who is being hurt by all of this.”
If Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoes the new fine reduction bill, Quinn claims she has enough votes to override it.
Should that happen, Gentile said that he hopes to get two additional bills passed to hold street vendors to the same standards as brick-and-mortar stores.
First, Gentile told this paper that he co-sponsored a bill that would require police officers who give out summonses to put the permit number of the vendor or cart on the summons, “so that when renewals come up, it will be easy to match up the licensee with the number of violations that have been given.
“This can better put us in a position of denying renewals if there are a number of outstanding violations,” he explained.
Second, Gentile also co-sponsored a bill that would require vendors to have letter grades.