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Judge Backs City Crackdown on Empire State Building Ticket Hawkers

By Jill Colvin | September 27, 2011 3:57pm | Updated on September 28, 2011 10:17am
A worker advertises the NY Skyride outside the Empire State Building.
A worker advertises the NY Skyride outside the Empire State Building.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — A judge has sided with the city in its crackdown on an Empire State Building virtual reality ride's aggressive ticket hawkers, saying the city has a right to shut them down because they don't have a vendor's license.

Operators of the NY Skyride, the Empire State Building’s virtual flight simulator, earned the neighborhood’s scorn by dispatching ticket vendors who harassed locals, blocked pedestrian traffic and swarmed groups of tourists, trying to convince them to take the ride, residents complained.

After the NYPD intervened, arresting ticket sellers during a series of street sweeps in April, the Skyride operators sued, saying the city's claim that hawkers needed vendors’ licenses to sell in and around East 34th Street and Fifth Avenue was bogus.

But Manhattan Civil Court Judge Donna Mills ruled in favor of the city last week, dismissing Skyline’s argument that the ticket-sellers are exempt from the city’s vending laws because they’re selling tickets, not “goods or services.”

Judge Mills also ruled against Skyline’s claims that the city was carrying out the orders of the powerful Malkin family, which owns the landmarked building and has been in an ongoing battle with the ride's operators.

“There are no facts pled in support of the allegation of improper influence by the petitioners landlord over the Police Department,” Judge Mills wrote in her eight-page decision, arguing that all New Yorkers have the right to complain to police.

"That the Police Department gave consideration to the complaints that it received, and came to its own conclusions based on the law, and the conditions on the sidewalk around the Empire State Building,” she said.

City lawyer Melanie Vogel Sadok applauded the ruling.

"As the court recognized, there are dangers inherent in the use of congested public sidewalks for private vending activities,” she said in a statement, arguing that the sale of tickets to an amusement ride on city sidewalks "is exactly the type of vending activity the City's laws were intended to address."

Skyline lawyer Randy Mastro, meanwhile, slammed the decision as “simply wrong on the facts and the law” and said the company would appeal.

“Someone selling tickets on the street to an entertainment venue like the Skyride is not selling goods or services, and that has been the law in New York for the past 100 years,” he said in a statement, reiterating his appeal that eliminating the ticket-selling would effectively put Skyride out of business.

“It shocks the conscience that the City would contort the law in this way to try to shut down a successful, tax-paying, law-abiding business. The fate of a great New York company that contributes mightily to the tourism industry here and supports more than 100 jobs hangs in the balance,” he said.

Residents in the area said they were thrilled about the decision and looking forward to some relief from the overzealous ticket hawkers.

“Oh wow! That is amazing! I’m really happy to hear that,” said Herald Towers building manager Yehezkel Mizrahi, who has been at war with the vendors who he said stand in front of his building by the dozen, earning complaints from his commercial tenants, including the Gap.

He said the hawkers had become even more brazen since June, when Mills issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting police intervention pending a court decision about the lawsuit.

Long-time resident Ken Bicknell, 62, who had complained to police about the vendors several times at Midtown South precinct community council meetings, also praised the judge's ruling.

“It’s about time,” said Bicknell, who had compiled a log documenting as many as 48 street vendors on Fifth and Sixth Avenue between 32nd and 35th streets at a time.

Still, he said he hadn’t noticed any difference in the vending so far, and had observed Skyride vendors soliciting business at West 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue as recently as Tuesday morning.

Skyride has been leasing its 18,000 square-foot space in the Empire State Building since 1993.