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Force Street Vendors to Use Matching Furniture, Upper East Sider Says

UPPER EAST SIDE — Street vendors should be forced to use matching sidewalk furniture and a standardized font on their signs, some Upper East Siders proposed at a recent 19th Precinct Community Council meeting.

Area activists, who have a long list of quality-of-life concerns when it comes to street vendors, also proposed the creation of a new, infraction-funded ticketing agency to crack down on vendors' purported crimes.

The concerns voiced at the meeting come shortly after a Harlem mobile boutique stoked Upper East Siders' fears that specialty sales vehicles could migrate below 125th Street.

The discussion, led by Community Board 8 member and Street Vendor Taskforce Committee head Michele Birnbaum, stemmed from "many complaints over the years about either vendor proliferation or vendor non-compliance," she said.

Birnbaum suggested that "when a vendor gets a license, he is issued the furniture that he's allowed to have on the street — his 8-foot table, his chair, an attractive cover — so we don't have a visual blight." She also recommended that vendors use street "signage in a certain font."

Such "standardized street furniture," would make it "easier for the consumer who now knows whether or not they are buying from a legal or illegal vendor," Birnbaum added.

She also pitched an electronic ticketing system that would instantly print infractions similar to the way police distribute traffic citations.

Among the complaints voiced by and to Birnbaum, she said, is that there are many vendor laws on the books but that they're not thoroughly enforced.

A solution first favored by CB8 several years ago, and floated again at the meeting, is for a separate division to be established in the NYPD specifically dealing with vendors, Birnbaum said.

Neither the NYPD nor New York City Department of Consumer Affairs returned requests for comment, though a community affairs officer present at the meeting promised to ramp up enforcement.

Some attendees worried that vendor culture simply might not be amenable to preserving quality of life in the neighborhood.

A vendor who "had some pocketbooks" and "was a Muslim," one woman claimed, would sit in front of a building's entrance "and had a bucket and was washing his feet."

"That was part of his religious need, but was that appropriate in front of a place where people are going in and out and is a residence?" asked UES Resident Betty Cooper Wallerstein.

Another attendee complained that vendors shouldn't use their way of selling goods as an excuse to behave badly.

"I worked really hard my whole life to buy my apartment," one woman said. "I didn't hurt anybody or bring down the quality of life doing so."

The overall tenor of the presentation and public comment session came to a clear crux at its conclusion, showing that Upper East Siders' worries about street vendors weren't softening anytime soon.

"This can be an accountant who says, "Gee, I only see a client one at a time. Rather than rent a high-priced office, I'll put a van on the street and it'll be my accounting office,'" Birnbaum warned.

"This is basically where we're going."

Officials at the Street Vendor Project, a rights organization advocating for these merchants, rebuffed the suggestions.

Project Director Sean Basinski said additional regulations would detract from New York's entrepreneurial spirit.

"Street vendors reflect the beautiful diversity of our city, and we don't think its a good idea for them to have any kind of homogenous stands or even typefaces," said Basinski, 40. "Vendors are small business owners and they should be allowed to design their displays as creatively as they see fit."

Basinski also spoke out against renewed demands for additional ticketing.

"It's a form of harassment against the smallest of small business owners," he said. 

"There's too much enforcement against our vendors, which makes it very hard for people who want to make an honest living providing reasonably priced food and merchandise to residents on the Upper East Side."