ON ARCHITECTURE- Vanishing vendors? Mall vendors unsure about their future

The City has relocated outside vendors like Pema Sherpa Turner to the East end of the Mall for the duration of the re-bricking project, but has yet to tell them where they will be allowed to set up when the project is finished.

While the City has directly addressed the concerns of almost everyone regarding the $7.5 million Downtown Mall re-bricking– pedestrians, preservationists, disgruntled would-be contractors, developers, architects, shop owners, handicapped people, restauranteurs, the homeless, motorists, local property owners, and shoppers– they have yet to meet with those most affected by the project, which began in earnest last week: the outside vendors.

Last month, vendors were told they would have to give up their prime locations and move to the East end of the Mall in front of City Hall for the duration of the project. While restaurateurs voiced their concerns about temporarily losing valuable outdoor café space, prompting the city to scrap a proposal that would have kept them closed until the completion of the project in May, and would have reduced the allowable size of cafés to 700 square feet, Mall vendors have remained mostly silent.

In addition to herding vendors East, city planners introduced a proposal to reverse a decision made three years ago, which created pricer assigned and less-pricy unassigned spots for vendors, and makes all vendor spaces on the new Mall surface available on a first come, first serve basis. In addition, the planners wanted to 'revise' the vendor location map, which leaves many of the Mall's vendors wondering where they'll be able to set up when the re-bricking is finished.

And as one established vendor has realized, location is everything. 

Terry Mills, owner of Designer Alternatives, whose has occupied the same familiar spot at Central Place since 2005, says her customers have come to identify her business by the spot she occupies. Given the circumstances, she understands the necessity of relocating the vendors during the project, but she's worried about what will happen to her business after its over. 

Like the patio shrinking proposal, this one concerning the vendors appears to be another attempt to create fairness. As chief city planner Jim Tolbert explained to City Council ahead of a December 16 meeting, creating the assigned spaces was "well received by those who were the oldest existing vendors and were able to purchase assigned spaces, but has been a source of problems for newer vendors who were not in the small group who were able to lease an assigned space."  

But Mills thinks the return to making spaces available on a first-come, first-serve basis is a big mistake. 

"The city should treat this like a real business," she says. "No first-come, first-serve, no lottery system– just charge appropriately for the good spots, and if the vendors will pay, then fine."

Like the restaurant folks, who argued that established places like Miller's and Sal's deserved special consideration when the City proposed shrinking café spaces, Mills thinks that established vendors also deserve consideration.

Mills claims the first-come, first-serve system made an already difficult job– maintaining an outdoor store in all kinds of weather– even harder. To get a good spot each day, vendors were forced to struggle with other vendors each morning, which she says sometimes led to arguments– even fisticuffs– and forced her to arrive hours earlier than she does now just to get a decent spot.

"So far, the city hasn't been clear about what they want to do with vendor spaces," says Mills, "and how they want to allocate them."

Indeed, City Councilors deferred making any decisions on the proposals Tolbert presented until spring.  

As a result, Mills says vendors are beginning to suspect that the City would like to get rid of them, especially at Central Place. "Vendors," she says, "are scared to speak out."

Indeed, several of the vendors we spoke to declined to comment, and appeared nervous that a reporter was asking them questions. But vendor Pema Sherpa Turner, originally from Nepal, said she hopes she will be able to return to her paid spot once the project is finished. "On the Mall, good," she says, pointing down the Mall from her temporary location in front of the Transit Center, "down here, not so good." 

But Mayor Dave Norris promises that vendors will have their say. "I imagine there will be a good bit of discussion with vendors before we make a decision, and I look forward to hearing that feedback as we work to find a good solution." 

As previously reported, the City decided to waive café fees for restaurants (which is costing the city $50,000, according to Tolbert) for the duration of the 2009 season, and  Tolbert says the city plans to waive fees for vendors as well, though only for the first quarter of 2009. Still, he says no plans have been made yet to meet with vendors to discuss how spaces will be allocated.

Meanwhile, vendors like Mills remain skeptical about the city's plans for them and harbors doubts that she will be able to return to her prime spot in front of the Central Place fountain.

Indeed, as the Mall appears to be evolving into a place for high-end franchises and other businesses–the upscale Landmark Hotel will be finished this year (one hopes); and, according to Florida-based Murray Costello Construction Company, it will commence construction on an Urban Outfitters shop in the Hardware Store building February 1–are its migratory outdoor vendors becoming an endangered species?

  Though Mills hopes not, she says she's noticed a trend. "There used to be alot more vendors on the Mall than there are today," she says.