After pleas from vendors, City Council president rolls back Spring Garden food cart ban

A food vendor near 15th and Spring Garden streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A food vendor near 15th and Spring Garden streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

City Council President Darrell Clarke is rolling back a food-vendor ban he instituted on a block of Spring Garden Street where vendors have operated for decades.

At a Streets Committee hearing this week, food-cart owners pleaded with councilmembers to undo the surprise regulations that have undercut their businesses.

“We run safe, clean businesses; we are licensed and permitted for more than 20 years at that corner,” said Mike Debesai, who has run a breakfast cart near the intersection of Broad and Spring Garden since 1998.

“We built a life for ourselves and for our families,” Debesai told the councilmembers. “After I’ve been there 21 years doing what I love to do, I was told to not be there. That’s really been extremely hard.”

The vendors were forced to move across the street last winter, as Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments developed a one-story retail building next to their longtime location on the south side of Spring Garden between Broad and 16th.

But when the concrete construction barriers were removed and they moved back across the street, Debesai and his fellow vendors were stunned to learn that Clarke had quietly instituted a law banning food vendors from the block. That ban became law in July, and a separate ban on sidewalk sales is moving through the council now.

Sales on the north side of Spring Garden fell by nearly half, the vendors say. The subway exit on that side of the street is closed during the morning rush hour, and foot traffic throughout the day is far lower on that side of the four-lane roadway.

The vendors all received tickets when they refused to move. Neither Clarke nor Blatstein would comment on whether the developer had requested the ban in front of his new building.

“Here’s a poor person in line, and then a rich person comes along, and you ask the poor person to get out of line so the rich can take his spot,” said Aaron Carter, a vendor who has operated at the intersection since 1980. “If that’s justice, then you allow this bill. But if it’s not, then I ask you to amend not only this bill but the previous bill as well.”

On Tuesday, Clarke had an amendment introduced to the sidewalk sales ban in the Streets Committee, narrowing the restriction to just the span of sidewalk between Broad Street and “a point 133 feet west of Broad Street.”

That would essentially just move the carts away from the Spring Garden subway stop.

Councilmember Mark Squilla, who chairs the Streets Committee, apologized to the vendors and noted that he used to eat at Debesai’s cart regularly when he worked near the intersection.

“We do appreciate your work and service here,” Squilla said. “As the city changes, and as we are looking into safety things, sometimes we don’t take everything into account.”

Clarke did not make an appearance at the hearing.

The vendors and their lawyer said that they believed amending the ban on street sales would help cart owners, but that the existing ban on street vendors still prevented food trucks from locating there.

They asked that the first bill be amended too, but Squilla told them they couldn’t do that at the current hearing.

Matt Monroe, the lawyer for the vendors, said Clarke’s office seems amenable to changing the food truck ban, as well.

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