Commercial vending is once again restricted on the west side of the internationally renowned Venice Beach Boardwalk.
The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Dec. 13 to amend Municipal Code Section 42.15, regulating selling and public expression activities on Ocean Front Walk. The ordinance additionally prohibits excessive noise along the beach boardwalk.
City officials have sought to limit commercial vending on Ocean Front Walk, where merchants on the east side who pay rent and taxes must compete with vendors on the west side. The law is also intended to restore some order on the boardwalk where people have fought over spaces and in recent months, an increase in homeless persons, particularly young transients, have descended and are earning money to save space for performers, city officials said.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, said commercial vending has been a “constant, chronic problem” for years on the boardwalk, and he noted that the situation has become violent, as people have been beaten over spaces.
“This is so that commercial vending is no longer on the west side of the beach,” Rosendahl said of the new law.
“This framework will provide a safe boardwalk for folks to be able to truly express themselves.”
The amended ordinance is the latest legislation that the City Council has approved to regulate selling at the international destination. Various versions have been rewritten and enacted by the city in the last six years as lawsuits were filed challenging provisions related to vending and other portions of the ordinance.
The amendment came after a federal judge determined in October 2010 that sections of the 2008 version related to the lottery system for selection of spaces and amplified noise should be blocked. In issuing a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Dean Pregerson effectively stated that the provision that issues permits through a lottery system likely violates the First Amendment.
The ruling came after a lawsuit was filed by 13 plaintiffs, including boardwalk performers and artists, alleging that the city ordinance violated the First and 14th Amendments. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit additionally invalidated portions of the 2004 and 2008 laws that banned vending unless the items were “inextricably intertwined” with the vendor’s message.
Some opponents vowed to continue bringing legal challenges against the new ordinance over free speech rights but city attorneys are confident the law will pass constitutional muster. The amended law restricts vending in a manner consistent with the courts’ ruling, city attorneys say.
“We think it will return Venice Beach to what it used to be, which is a traditional forum for free speech performance and art,” assistant city attorney Valerie Flores told the council.
Under the ordinance, items that can be vended include newspapers, leaflets, pamphlets and bumper stickers, or items that have been created by the vendor such as books, CDs, paintings, photos and sculptures.
Banned items are those that have “more than nominal utility apart from their communication” such as housewares, clothing, jewelry, oils, candles, incense and lotions. Some speakers took issue with the ban on jewelry, arguing that it’s a representation of indigenous cultures.
While a prior ban on amplified sound has been deleted, the law still bans the generation of noise beyond certain decibels between 9 a.m. and sunset. Noise cannot exceed 75 decibels when measured at a distance of 25 feet from the source, or 96 decibels when measured from one foot away.
The ordinance divides the boardwalk into 205 designated spaces available on a first-come, first-served basis. Five of the spaces are double-sized and will be used for the large-act performers.
A number of speakers urged the City Council to approve the regulations to address what they say has been an unstable situation.
“We need relief down there in terms of the residents and the merchants,” boardwalk resident Joel Shields said. “I would like to see it returned to a free speech zone and not for commercial vending.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks noted that her board voted unanimously to support the amendment. She said she has been involved in every iteration of the legislation over the years and believes the most recent version is needed urgently.
Musician Stephen Fiske acknowledged that while the law is imperfect and will undoubtedly be tested again, he feels it is “desperately needed.”
“We need this law now because the city has allowed the boardwalk to deteriorate into a degenerated swap meet and lawlessness prevails,” Fiske said.
Rosendahl said the city will install signs clearly stating the rules on the boardwalk, and the ordinance will give police “another tool” to address the various issues.
Capt. Jon Peters, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department Pacific division, stressed there has been a public safety issue occurring since the boardwalk has been without regulation, noting that aggravated assaults increased by 16 percent.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a public safety issue,” Peters said.
The City Council approved the ordinance with an urgency clause allowing it to take effect immediately after the law is signed by the mayor.