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Unlicensed and Non-DC Resident Vending in City Funded Adams Morgan Program Exposed

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF]

The visual delight of peaked, white tents below a green canopy of small trees irresistibly beckons street traffic and pedestrians to a small, triangular shaped pocket park bounded by Columbia Road, Euclid and Champlain Streets in Adams Morgan.

One approaches expecting something like a farmer’s market or an art and crafts fair. Instead, one finds three stands of side-by-side vendors — 14 in all, with one vacancy. Eleven of these separately tented vendors, who hail from all over South and Central America, sell hot food and three sell a miscellany of knock-off souvenir goods and infant and child ready-to-wear. And, rather than positioning their tented stands in the park, the vendors’ stands are positioned on the public space sidewalks facing the park, thereby allowing their “back-room” preparation, serving, and cleaning activities to impinge on the surrounding streetscape views.

(Ed. Note: Our photographer, who was standing on the public sidewalk at the edge of the park, reported that sortly after he started to take his photos, he was approached by a person who identified himself as the “man in charge” who announced that photos could not be taken “because the park is not public space [and] because they have a contractual agreement with the city and the park is private property when they are using it.” Further, “another man insisted that I could not take photos without written permission of everyone in the photo. The man in charge wanted a card from me; I declined, and he declined to furnish me with [his] card. Their concern and hostility was interesting.”)

Only a short, half-block from the busy intersection at 18th Street, this little plot of land was given to the District for use as a public park by a prominent family who belonged to the First Church of Christ Scientist, which is directly across from it on Euclid Street; it now goes by the name of Unity Park.

The park itself is a barren and weathered hardscape surface beloved by rats and pigeons and punctuated by a figurative sculpture, well-intentioned but badly executed, which is intended to artistically celebrate the idealistic goals of “unity through diversity and man helps child.” Neighborhood commentary is universally favorable to the aesthetic improvement to the park’s appearance by this 22-month-long “tent city”-like use.

So, too, is the reaction to the vendors, who are uniformly polite and relatively cheerful, as well they should be. Their fortunate selection by the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs (OLA) provides them with tents, initial supplies, rent-free vendor spaces, and free garbage and trash collection by public works department crews. There is also no licensing or inspecting interference with their operation from any of the relevant District agencies that would normally have jurisdiction, although OLA now professes to be working with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to have the participants in this program qualify for licensed street vendor status. Hygiene, food safety, and preparation and operation of the food stands, however, remain primary among certain of the neighborhood business community’s chief concerns.

the Unity Park program is intended, as described by the Mayor’s staff, to be an “incubator and micro-business development project” for asserted “desperately poor,” previously illegal street vendors who heretofore were congesting the streets and sidewalks around Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church at 16th Street and Park Road and spilling south onto the park and playground space between the church and the Department of Parks and Recreation’s ornate, next-door headquarters building at 16th and Lamont Streets, NW.

Vendors occupy Unity Park from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, with actual sales operation between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., on the three best business days of the week — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday — 52 weeks a year. Customers of the food vendors report satisfaction, especially with the prices and variety of what is offered for sale. Persons not patronizing these vendors explain their reluctance by citing reasons similar to the business community’s fears over health, safety, and liability issues.

This 22 month program, still incubating and eliciting a growing number of complaints of unfair competition from neighboring Hispanic business owners, prompted Kristin Barden, Executive Director of the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, a business improvement district, to call a stakeholders meeting on August 16th, which was attended, among others, by Pat Patrick, President of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association (AMBPA); ANC Commissioners Wilson Reynolds, the ANC’s chair, and Nancy Shia, whose ANC single member district includes Unity Park; city officials and inspectors; and Hispanic business owners and operators.

As expressed at that meeting, their concerns reflected the above issues plus unanswered questions regarding whether or not any of the vendors pay District sales taxes, or any taxes for that matter; the overwhelming use by the vendors of vehicles with Maryland and Virginia license plates for transporting vendor food, equipment, and sales items; and the setting out of traffic cones to block off curb space for reserving parking space during their extensive hours of weekend operation. This led into the hot-button issue of which of the vendors are actually District residents – of special concern given the taxpayer subsidy of their operation and the consequent unfair competition allegations.

When asked, the question of “vendor graduation” from the incubator program seemed deliberately obfuscated rather than answered by the mayoral officials in attendance. Indeed, Mercedes Lemp and George Escobar, OLA Director and Deputy Director, respectively, reacted with surprise to the many questions posed by the Hispanic business owners and the BID and AMBPA representatives. By contrast, Josiah Akintoye, the health department’s co-ordinator for sanitation, vending and special events quietly, but forcefully, expressed his concerns for the lack of interagency coordination and enforcement of the health, safety, inspection, and licensing requirements.

The Unity Park vendor program’s new project manager, Angela Franco, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, promised the meeting attendees that incubator vendors would eventually be graduated through a cooperative venture with an agency such as the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and that non-DC resident vendors would be transitioned out of the program.

Then, at the Adams Morgan ANC’s September 1st meeting, during more than an hour’s consideration of a resolution proposed by Commissioner Nancy Shia on these same issues that had been discussed at the stakeholder’s meeting two weeks earlier. While her resolution praised the results of the Unity Park vendor program and supported its continuation under the existing Department of Parks and Recreation Memorandum of Understanding, the resolution also called for OLA to ensure that District rules for licensing and inspections be enforced, that all vendors be DC residents, and that OLA give the ANC assurance that this micro-business incubator development program not simply be a continuing subsidized program. The resolution also recommended that the District explore the possibility of establishing additional such programs throughout the city. ANC Chair Wilson Reynolds proposed an amendment — that was adopted — that trash be collected and removed immediately upon cessation and clean-up following each day’s hours of operation.

A lengthy debate and discussion ensued, generating much heat and many assertions but a decreasing amount of clarity and fact-based assertions. Kristin Barden eloquently summarized the BID’s concerns, adding a proposition that the Unity Park vendor program move its operations each month to a different part of the District. Pat Patrick powerfully argued the AMBPA position, and OLA’s George Escobar was far more forthcoming in response to questions from the commissioners and audience than he and his director had been at the August 16th stakeholder’s meeting. Audience expressions of opinion was divided and complicated by the session’s public comment portion of the meeting having degenerated into a shouting match between public participants who had not yet been heard and aggressively responding ANC commissioners who were eager to get on with the rest of the commission’s agenda. And, as expected, Commissioner Shia’s resolution, as amended by ANC Chair Reynolds, passed unanimously.

In a subsequent telephone conversation with Ward One Councilmember Jim Graham, whose ward includes Adams Morgan’s Unity Park and the 16th Street and Park Road site, Graham praised the vendor incubator program, crediting the Mayor with devising the legal framework that allows it to operate successfully. He did, however, assure this reporter that it had always been intended that health and safety licensing and inspection regulations were to be fully followed in this experimental program. Graham added his concerns to those of others over the question of whether or not this program presented an unfair advantage to the incubator vendors over that of the Adams Morgan brick and mortar businesses offering the same or similar food and merchandise and who pay rents, utilities, and a host of taxes, licensing fees, and insurance. It needs to be studied and further analyzed, said Graham.