$400 to peddle: New rules, fees vex vendors

Street vendors are part of the Downtown Mall landscape– so much so that in revamping its zoning ordinance, Charlottesville is revising how it regulates those open-air merchants.

A proposed $400 fee to hawk wares on the Mall is either a bargain or one of the highest in the country, depending on who's talking.

Zoning chief Jim Tolbert says the biggest change in the tidied-up ordinance is the new $400 fee and $2/square-foot rent, and that clothing racks are no longer allowed because of complaints they're "junky and unattractive."

Wood carver Chuck Tomaselli feels blindsided by the new regs that went before City Council November 17, particularly the additional $400. "What's that for?" he asks. "How many artisans can afford that?"

Clearly irritated, he adds, "I'm a licensed vendor, and they didn't notify me. They snuck in the $400. Why not add it to all businesses? This discriminates against vendors."

A committee of downtown merchants and vendors "realized vendors are in direct competition with merchants who pay rent and utilities," while the vendors use city property rent-free, says Tolbert.

Currently a business license costs $125. And contrary to suggestions from some quarters, the additional $400 administrative fee is not to hire the new zoning administrator to enforce the rules, says Tolbert, who explains, "That's what we already spend."

Adding the new rent for a 10-by-10-foot space brings the cost of street peddling in Charlottesville to $725 a year.

"This is dirt cheap," declares Tolbert. "Call Fashion Square Mall and ask the rent for a cart."

The average monthly rent for a cart at Fashion Square during November and December is $3,000, according to marketing director Misty Parsons. The rest of the year monthly cart rents can range between $800 and $1,200.

Tomaselli disagrees that the Downtown Mall is a bargain. He calls the new fee "one of the top rents in the country," and lists peddlers' license fees in other cities: $50 in Fairfield, Ohio; $75 in Dubuque, Iowa; and $20 in Fairfax.

He says the current $125 license fee is "on the high end" already. "It seems like this is something to drive people off," he complains. "We're what makes the Mall unique."

And he doesn't like another requirement that all tablecloths be black: "It's going to look like a funeral."

"It gives a sense of design," counters Joan Fenton, chairman of the Board of Architectural Review and owner of two downtown businesses. "When you set up at Barracks Road," notes Fenton, "you have to use black."

Fenton worked on the committee that came up with the changes. "I think the issue was the realization that the controls were no longer functional," she says. "There was a sense it was beginning to look like a flea market."

Tomaselli wonders why the existing regs weren't enforced. "There were no teeth in the regulations," says Fenton. The city's zoning administrator was supposed to enforce them, but no one was doing that, particularly on weekends. Under the new rules, "my understanding is the police can enforce them," Fenton says.

Vendor Jam Yang is worried about the ban on clothes racks. "How do you see them?" he asks, pointing to his two racks displaying Tibetan apparel. Yang is rethinking his future on the Downtown Mall with the new fees. "It's too much for me," he says. "It's not easy standing here all day. Sometimes you don't sell anything."

But Fenton points out that it's not just street vendors who will lose their racks, explaining, "I have a rack I push out every day. I'm not going to be able to do that, either."

Tomaselli suggests the merchants may be jealous of the freedom and lifestyle the artists have. "I feel it's an elitist move to get rid of vendors on the Mall," he says.

And as a result of his concerns, the city is meeting with vendors on November 25. City Council is expected to take a vote December 1.

But some see the vendors as getting a sweet deal, even with the new costs. "As a business person, I have to comply with guidelines on how my business looks," says Fenton. "It seems fair and equitable that vendors have to comply."

She adds, "If they look good, they enhance it for all of us."

Street vendors: Enhancing the Downtown Mall or giving it a flea market feel?