The Los Angeles Building and Safety Department says it will begin weekend patrols along Venice's Ocean Front Walk to crack down on unlicensed vendors.
Mike Lee, a senior building inspector, said the department hopes to curtail illegal vending by adding to its patrols, which are now conducted only two or three weekdays a month. A number of legal vendors have filed complaints, according to Lee, saying that they resent the presence of unlicensed competitors.
"The vendors we've been dealing with who are legal want to get the illegal competition off the walk," said Lee, adding that the additional patrols would begin in coming weeks. "As more (vendors) become legal, we're getting more and more complaints."
Lee estimated that as many as 250 vendors, selling everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers, work the tourist-laden one-mile stretch along Ocean Front Walk on weekends, more than twice the number who turn out on weekdays. He declined to speculate on how many may be operating illegally, but said the new inspections may ease commercial congestion along the walk.
A number of licensed vendors and businessmen endorsed the planned increase. For Louise Green, however, the action comes too late. Green, who sold clothing on the walk for more than a year, blamed illegal vendors for forcing her out of business this week. She said sales started to decline as increasing numbers of unlicensed vendors appeared on the scene.
On Saturday, Green posted colorful "Going Out of Business" signs on her clothing racks and offered the last of her stock at reduced prices. Squinting into the bright midday sun as the ocean breeze ruffled her merchandise, the red-headed vendor said profits had plummeted in recent months.
"Business was good for six or eight months," Green said. "But there are a lot more vendors now than there were a year ago. Business is only half of what it used to be."
Ruth Clark, who leases space to Green and several other vendors, said the illegal operations appear to be hurting business everywhere. Sitting in a ramshackle trailer behind the vending area at Park Court, Clark complained bitterly about the abundance of unlicensed competitors, claiming that only 10% to 25% of the vendors are operating legally.
"We had 27 (legal) conditions that we had to meet to the nth degree, but the (illegal operators) just wheel and deal," said Clark, who leases space to about 20 vendors. "There are probably twice as many people here this year as last year."
Arnold Springer, a member of the Venice Town Council, said inspectors should be citing property owners as well as vendors. Springer charged that several owners of vacant lots used by vendors are in clear violation of city and state Coastal Commission regulations. By failing to police the larger offenders, the city implies that it is all right to break the law, Springer maintained.
"It's the city's law and they can enforce it, but they refuse," Springer said. "We want everyone treated fairly, but the city inspectors are not cooperating. It's an open city down there. You can do whatever you want."
Vending operations along Ocean Front Walk go back to the 1960s, when the area became a popular spot for artists and artisans selling jewelry, leather and other hand-made goods. Although it still attracts a sizable number of artisans, the walk--which stretches roughly from Rose Avenue to Venice Avenue--has become better known for its preponderance of outlets offering T-shirts, sunglasses, buttons and trinkets.
Afraid that the vendor population was getting too large, the city started enforcing a conditional-use permit law in August, 1983. Under the law, property owners are supposed to pay a $1,500 fee for an open-ended conditional-use permit for each lot. Vendors, who typically pay $200 to $1,000 a month to use the locations, are required to obtain a city business license, which costs $20.16 a year.
Lee said his office deals mostly with vendors because property owners are usually not on the site during inspections. Lee estimated that more than 10 property owners have applied for permits to convert their lots to legal vending areas, but added that the permit process is time consuming.
Since Jan. 1, Lee said the department has issued about 150 citations to illegal vendors. He likened the citations to a traffic ticket. The first citation costs $85. The second is $170 and the third is $255. Anyone cited more than three times can be brought to court, but Lee said only a few people fall into that category.
In the two years since the passage of the permit law, there has been little evidence of change along the walk. On peak days merchants work elbow-to-elbow, selling their wares under multicolored canopies, from the backs of trucks, on folding metal tables, from mobile homes and even from apartment terraces.
Phil Bubar, president of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, said property owners and vendors appear to be violating the law in large numbers. Like the Town Council's Springer, Bubar maintained that the city should focus more of its enforcement effort on property owners.
"We're fighting this all the time," Bubar said. "A lot of the owners are absentee. Others say they're in the process of getting their permits. But the problem has gotten out of hand."
Bubar said he gets a dozen calls a day from people interested in becoming vendors. Complaining that the walk is overcrowded with vendors, Bubar said the city should reconsider its position on outdoor merchants.
"The city likes the carnival atmosphere on the walk," Bubar said. "They think it adds flavor to the community. . . . But the walk is becoming like a dumping ground for all people trying to make a quick buck. A lot of the stuff is schlock that should be sold at swap meets."
Despite Bubar's complaints, it does not appear that the city is prepared to make any wholesale changes along the walk. Yvette McFrazier, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Pat Russell, whose district includes Venice, said Russell believes that the vending problem should be handled by the building and safety depatment.
At this point, she added that enforcement of the law is a "hit and miss" proposition.