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City Tries to Boot Sunnyside Coffee Vendor From Plaza Under 7 Train

By Jeanmarie Evelly | February 5, 2016 5:44pm | Updated on February 8, 2016 8:38am
 Sheref Abdelshafy in his coffee cart at 40th Street and Queens Boulevard.
Sheref Abdelshafy in his coffee cart at 40th Street and Queens Boulevard.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

SUNNYSIDE — Sheref Abdelshafy has served morning commuters with coffee, bagels and pastries from his cart under the 7 train on weekdays for nearly nine years — but now the city wants him out.

A Department of Health inspector slapped Abdelshafy with a $2,000 fine last month and told him the space where he parks his cart, converted into a public plaza by the city two years ago, is private property, he said.

"They say, this is private, you can't stay in the plaza," said the 40-year-old Abdelshafy, a father of two who lives in Brooklyn.

The spot where Abdelshafy operates — under the 40th Street station on Queens Boulevard — was turned into a plaza in 2014 under a Department of Transportation program that added tables and chairs to the space and renamed it Lowery Plaza.

Though Abdelshafy has a permit and mobile food vending license to operate his cart, the Department of Health says he now needs additional permission to remain in his longtime location, saying the space is owned by the DOT.

He needs written permission from either the DOT or the Sunnyside Shines BID, which manages Lowery Plaza, in order to serve his food there, the Health Department said.

Both Abdelshafy and the Street Vendor Project, a group of street vendors and advocates which is helping him fight the ticket, dispute the Health Department's assertion.

"Legally speaking, there's nothing that says the plazas are private," said Basma Eid, an organizer with Street Vendor Project who is working with Abdelshafy.

"Technically, DOT manages all public properties ... that would mean every vendor who is on a public sidewalk would need to have written permission, and that's not the case," she said.

The DOT's own website bills its Plaza Program sites as "social public spaces." A spokeswoman for the DOT said Lowery Plaza is a public space, but referred questions about its vending rules to the Department of Health.

Abdelshafy has continued to show up at his usual spot since getting the $2,000 ticket last month — he'll attend a city hearing about the fine on Monday — but worries what would happen to his business if he's forced to move.

"It's not easy to do another spot," he said, saying he made just $30 or $40 a day when he first started running the cart in this location in 2006.

But he built up a loyal following of customers through the years, and says moving now would be detrimental to business.

"I make business to support my family," he said. "I have rent, I have bills, I have everything. I can't move."

The vendors under Sunnyside's 7 train stations have been a source of conflict in the past — a few years ago, Community Board 2 tried to ban the carts entirely, saying they cluttered and dirtied the spaces.

CB2 Chair Pat O'Brien said past issues included garbage from the carts, food trucks blocking parking spots and noise and exhaust from their generators.

"I think all people would be better served if we had a nice, clean open plaza," he said.

Rachel Thieme, head of the Sunnyside Shines BID that manages Lowery Plaza, said she's working on clarifying with the Health Department what the rules are for street carts in that space.

But she says the BID has received complaints in the past about the vendors from local businesses, that say the sellers compete for their customers but without having to pay the rent of a brick-and-mortar store.

"They feel it can be unfair the vendors don't have that kind of burden," Thieme said.

Abdelshafy and Eid argue that he's a good operator, who keeps his space clean and is careful to make sure he meets the city's spatial regulations, which dictate his cart must be a certain distance from crosswalks and subway entrances.

He's recently been collecting signatures of support from customers — he says he as nearly 200 — and put a sign up in the window of his cart that reads "The community supports me! My spot is legal!"

"That's insane. Why are they trying to move him out?" said Ksenia T., who lives in the area and says she stops at Abdelshafy's cart every morning. "It's part of the community. I can't believe that’s even an issue."

Abdelshafy says he's due to go before the city's Environmental Control Board on Monday for a hearing about his ticket, which he plans to dispute. In the meantime, he's nervous as he heads to work each day.

"Everyday I'm looking around for someone to come to give me another problem," he said.

"This is my life," he added. "This is not for only me, this is for my family."