Sidewalk vendors
Sidewalk vendors in Balboa Park. Photo courtesy of the city

San Diego’s Sidewalk Vending Ordinance has turned out to be nothing but a headline-grabbing ordinance with no teeth because Mayor Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott will not stand up to vendor groups who threaten litigation. Our coastal parks and pathways as well as many downtown sidewalks during the late evening hours continue to be taken over by street vendors.

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After Senate Bill 946 was passed in 2018, cities throughout California were required to pass their own sidewalk vending ordinances, but it took the city of San Diego until 2022 to take such action.

When San Diego’s ordinance took effect in June 2022. the city refused to fully enforce the ordinance in the coastal zone, claiming Coastal Commission approval was needed. Many parties pointed out that Coastal Commission approval was not required and no other city in California had even asked for the commission to review a vending ordinance. 

 In September 2022 to much fanfare Councilmember Jennifer Campbell announced she had convinced the Coastal Commission not to review the ordinance. Despite that announcement it took until February of this year for the city to officially begin enforcement in the coastal zone of San Diego.

Nevertheless, many evenings downtown sidewalks are taken over by large groups of hot dog vendors who threaten and harass local small businesses. Code enforcement officers are afraid to enforce anything without police backup, yet police have been advised by the city attorney that they should not help. So there has been zero enforcement at most times.

For two weeks in February there was an attempt to fully enforce the vending ordinance in the coastal zone. The city said vendors claiming First Amendment rights would only be allowed if they were dealing in clearly religious or political merchandise. But after two weeks the city ordered park rangers to discontinue enforcement against anyone claiming First Amendment protection.

Today most of our oceanfront parks and pathways have once again been overtaken by street vendors claiming First Amendment protection. The goods and services offered for sale range from henna tattoos and caricatures to supposedly handmade jewelry that appears suspiciously alike from table to table.

Unlicensed food vendors continue to operate at will. The vending of such articles is prohibited in all California State Parks and all National Parks. Virtually everywhere in the country only merchandise that carries or constitutes a clear political, religious, philosophical or ideological message is protected by the First Amendment.

The last word from the mayor’s office regarding enforcement as it pertains to the First Amendment was on June 2:

 “Our office has given direction to the City Attorney’s Office to begin amending the defined allowed First Amendment uses. This includes preparation of training materials and bulletins, enforcement definitions and protocols, as well as prep work for an eventual Council presentation to address this issue. This effort is being spearheaded by Parks and Rec.”

This is a process that will take months if not a year or longer to conclude and allow enforcement to begin, assuming the proposed changes actually do prohibit the sale of the merchandise described.

Currently there are only two full-time park rangers assigned to patrol our shorelines. The ordinance provided funding to hire an additional eight rangers to patrol the coastal zone and additional code enforcement officers to enforce the ordinance in the remainder of the city. However, this has not been done.

The city recently removed $1.4 million from the city budget for impounding vendor equipment stating that it was not needed because no vendor equipment had been impounded. This is a clear sign that full enforcement of the city’s ordinance has not taken place anywhere in the city.

So, for at least the next year or so when you visit a city beach or enjoy a coastal park, or walk or bike on a coastal path, expect that scenic view of nature to be obstructed. Each vendor will also occupy at least one hard-to-get parking spot in our coastal communities. Tax-paying, legitimate downtown small businesses will continue to be threatened and many will be destroyed. All thanks to the lack of action by Gloria and Elliott.

Larry Webb is president of the Mission Beach Town Council. La Jolla community leader Robert Evans and Janie Emerson of the La Jolla Shores Association also signed this column.