Curbing Vendors Not So Cool

June 30, 2008
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Grand Rapids makes much of its designs as one of the state’s Cool Cities, and there are undoubtedly concepts that have worked in the downtown — the oft-called "living room" to West Michigan.

The central city is recognized for its burgeoning residential population and its proximity to student campuses of Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Cooley Law School.

It has been cited as one of the "most walk-able" cities in America. Rosa Parks Circle, where Maya Lin constructed her Ecliptic installation, sits just beyond the entrance to the world's first LEED-certified art museum. The JW Marriott is just few blocks west.

The current request by the Downtown Development Authority to limit food vendors and their carts, however, is incongruous with such developments in a cool city.

The fact that the city only a month ago changed a decades-old ordinance to allow someone to hail a cab is evidence of slow progress, or perhaps of mindsets that are limited despite the rapidity of change.

The city is currently considering an "update" to its 25-year-old ordinance permitting sidewalk food vendors (which includes sidewalk cafes set up by restaurant owners with brick fronts). Interestingly enough, the original ordinance was adopted as the city began its renaissance 25 years ago while constructing a pedestrian mall, now updated or reconstructed to include a street and parking directly in front of downtown businesses (which also created limitations for sidewalk cafe setups and food vendors).

Current consideration of vendor limitations should be addressed with caution and compromise. The compromise must come in discussion with the vendors themselves, the smallest of the city’s small businesses.

City Police Captain Rebecca Whitman told commissioners vendors are not the problem — their clients are the problem. As part of any compromise it would seem logical to address the issues with vendor patrons, rather than hinder and arbitrarily limit the vendors.

Whitman said the two issues are littering and congestion in front of existing downtown businesses, including the entries to office buildings. The first problem should be addressed with littering fines. Vendors should be able to better control the lines that form or the location of the vending carts so as to remain a specific distance from building entries.

Limiting vendor access to specific blocks or areas as is being proposed, however, is certain to impact the vendor business. “Location, location, location” is the well-worn business phrase for success. It is perhaps more a compromise to indicate distance from building entries as opposed to herding the purveyors to specified, out-of-the-way locations.

Vendors are a part of the color, conviviality and culture of Cool Cities (though we would also note such businesses predate the “cool” concept).

The downtown student population and those who stroll for vendor goods during the noon hour are undoubtedly a big part of being cool. And cool heads should prevail in the summer heat at city hall.

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