New York Vendors Take a Stand

Times Staff Writer

In a city where everything is about location, location, location, newsstands have the best.

And now the city is poised to tear down all 300 of them and replace the oddly shaped huts brimming with things as varied as tabloids and Tums with new uniform structures that in many cases will be larger and in all cases will be plastered with wraparound advertisements.

The newsstand owners insist the city’s plan will force 64 of them to move or go out of business and that it will impose restrictive guidelines that violate the remaining operators’ First Amendment rights. That’s what the New York City Newsstand Operators Assn. says in a lawsuit filed against the city in New York Supreme Court.

The city says far fewer will be affected.

The owners, mostly immigrants from India and Pakistan and disabled American veterans, also contend that it is unfair of the city to cut out the little guy in favor of a behemoth media company that will share in the ad revenue.

“I hired an architect, took out a loan and spent $50,000 on a new hut a few years ago,” said Mike Patel who runs a downtown newsstand at Chambers Street and Broadway, less than a block from City Hall.


“And now they’re going to rip it down and make me move? If they move me to the middle of the block, there’s no business. New Yorkers won’t go a half block out of their way from the subway.”

Patel owes the bank $31,000 from that loan and has some debt on a newsstand in the financial district at Pine and William streets that his wife, Hansa, runs.

Together, they have worked in newsstands for 25 years, working 18-hour days while raising two sons who are now doctors. “We are good citizens,” says Patel, who came here from India in 1978 and earned an accounting degree.

At the center of the dispute is who owns these newsstands.

The men and women who until now have built the corrugated metal huts and run the small businesses inside them say that they do. And many are willing to finance new structures with advertising as long as they’re allowed to share in the ad revenue, according to their lawyers.

The city contends that while the operators may own the walls, the city owns the streets under them.

And while the operators pay $1,076 every other year for a license, the city says that entitles them to run their businesses out of that spot for two years -- nothing more, nothing less.

“They are on public property where they are being allowed to conduct their business,” said Gabriel Taussig, a city attorney. He pointed out that the operators had lobbied over the years for a cut of the advertising revenue but that “the City Council had rejected that in terms of usage of public property. That revenue should go to the taxpayers.”

Local Law 64, a version of which was introduced during Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s administration and was passed a year ago under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is intended to perk up the appearance of city sidewalks with new “street furniture.”

In addition to modernized newsstands, the city will get 3,300 bus stops, 20 paid toilets and dozens of information kiosks and trash receptacles. All will come with advertising.

Taussig said that the law should not drive any newsstand operators out of business and would force no more than a dozen to be moved, mostly to make them wheelchair accessible.

“Nobody is questioning the fact that newsstands play a role in this city’s life,” said Taussig, “but that doesn’t prevent the city from getting additional benefit from them.”

By the end of January the city is planning to pick one of five conglomerate media companies bidding to build and maintain the new street furniture and promising to fill city coffers with $400 million in ad revenue over 20 years. Right now the city raises about $160,000 from licensing fees annually.

Andrew Celli Jr., the attorney who filed the lawsuit this summer for the association of newsstand operators, says there is more at stake in this dispute than who gets a cut of the ad revenue.

“There are tons of cases,” explains Celli, “that say the city can’t impose excessive fees and pressure on First Amendment activities, and people dealing in newspapers and periodicals are very much involved in that activity.”

In fact, the first line of a brief he wrote in 1998 on a related case began: “Newspapers are not hot dogs. One is doing something the Constitution thinks is very important and the other one is hot dogs.”

Attorney Taussig retorts that the free-speech issue isn’t relevant for businesses that make more money selling chewing gum than they do newspapers.

Celli says the new law also imposes an excessive fee, requiring people applying to run a newsstand to pay a one-time $25,000 fee. “You’re not buying the hut for $25,000, that’s just an excessive fee to get into the business.”

Overall, he adds, the law is putting an already besieged business -- midcentury, there were 1,500 newsstands -- under more pressure.

For Mike Patel, 57, the new law means he will have less to show for his life’s work when he retires in a few years. He had hoped he could sell his structure and recoup his $50,000 investment.

“Now that we’re finished with the kids, my wife and I are working for ourselves,” says Patel, whose children are 30 and 31. “What will we have now for our old years?”