UWS Police Crack Down on Street Vendors After Complaints

By Leslie Albrecht on October 25, 2011 7:15pm 

UPPER WEST SIDE — After months of mounting complaints from locals, Upper West Side police said they're turning up the heat on food vendors and other street merchants.

Police are working to identify which vendors repeatedly break the law in the hopes that they'll be given stiffer penalties when they go before a judge, officers said at the 20th Precinct Community Council meeting on Monday.

Officers said they're also teaming up with agencies that oversee street vendors so they can better enforce the mish-mash of laws regulating the small-scale street businesses.

Police said they've joined forces with the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and FDNY to conduct "joint operations" where they check up on vendors.

At two such operations in the past month, officers said they confiscated two hot dog carts that had been left unattended — one for three weeks — on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue near West 73rd Street. Police said they also got rid of some generators and "several containers of gas"  that vendors at West 60th Street and Broadway were using illegally.

The stepped up enforcement comes as residents have been complaining about what seems to be an increase in vendors — from high-end food trucks to modest produce stands — on Upper West Side streets.

Residents complained that vendors flout the law by monopolizing parking spaces, blocking fire hydrants and bus stops, blasting music and using noisy, smelly generators that pollute the air.

"It's great to see [police] are out there doing things," said resident Avi Weiss, one of several residents who raised concerns about a food truck at West 68th Street and Broadway, at Monday's meeting. "I'd like to see it be much more consistent."

Low-level offenses, such as vendors setting up stands too close to subway entrances, are heard at the Midtown Community Court, which handles non-violent misdemeanors and criminal summonses.

Police said they've been working closely with court officials to make sure the Hon. Richard Weinberg, the community court's sole judge, is alerted when a repeat offender is before him. Now, when officers issue a summons, they write any history of illegal activity on the back of the ticket so the judge will see it when deciding the vendor's case. The judge doesn't have access to information about prior summonses when he's on the bench making a decision.

Vendors are sometimes fined when they violate the law, but the court has developed other strategies — such as community service — to keep vendors in line, said Midtown Community Court director Courtney Bryan.

Vendors who break the law are assigned to work on community projects, such as painting over graffiti or picking up garbage, Bryan said. Neighborhood groups such as block associations suggest the projects.

Some law-breaking vendors are sentenced to the court's "Responsible Vending" program, a two-hour class where they get a crash course in city vending rules. Vendors are given a handbook that explains regulations in plain language, not legalese, Bryan said.

“When they walk out of there we can feel pretty confident they know what the laws are,” Bryan said.

Some residents said more sidewalk and street merchants have moved to the Upper West Side since a police crackdown against vendors in Midtown, but it's not clear exactly how many now operate in the neighborhood.

Community Board 7 recently announced plans to conduct a survey of food vendors, and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, has called for a citywide count of every truck, cart and stand.

Brewer has suggested using GPS devices to track street vendors. She said Monday she also wants to beef up regulations on the generators that vendors use because they are noisy and polluting.

The community board's Upper East Side counterpart has also raised concerns about the growing number of vendors residents have been seeing on its streets. A street vendor task force of Community Board 8 began discussing possible solutions on Monday, such as limiting the number of street vendors per block, requiring design guidelines for carts and trucks, and creating an agency dedicated to enforcing vendor rules.

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