Restrictions for Downtown Performers Revised

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Public protest poured into the email inboxes of City Council members after the Great Morgani retired this year. Known for his eye-popping costumes and accordion-playing on Pacific Avenue, the Great Morgani stopped performing after a City Council decision last year made street performing restrictions more severe.

City Council passed an ordinance in September that created a new framework of rules for downtown performances. Since its implementation, problems arose for performers and business owners over inconsistent enforcement and unclear restrictions.

Due to a torrent of public contestation, City Council decided last Tuesday to move forward with a recommendation calling for the creation of 50 to 60 designated spaces for people to perform or speak in if they choose to use a display device. A display device can be anything a performer places on the ground, from a table to a tip jar.

Vice Mayor Don Lane and City Council member Pamela Comstock were tasked with coming up with tweaks to the restrictive ordinance. The two met with business owners, street performers and various area planning associations to devise a new system to please all those involved.

“This framework allows us to create some carefully selected places,” Lane said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a big open space, let’s put a performance space there.’”

City Council members received complaints that the 2013 ordinance was too restrictive on downtown performers. The ordinance dictated that individuals using display devices must stay 14 feet away from buildings and take up no more than 12 square feet. Performers can be fined or asked to leave if a blanket or tarp exceeds the approved amount of space for display devices.

“If you’re going to set up to do your selling, performing, tabling, or if you’re going to set anything on the sidewalk other than your feet, you have a display device,” Lane said.

The revision calls for the creation of distinct zones with different sizes to accommodate particular types of performers with different sized display devices. An individual who wishes to stand with a guitar and a tip jar needs less space than a group of individuals handing out literature from a table.

“The places the city selects as the areas for marking will be shaped by the definitions that will be suitable for a table,” Lane said. “It wouldn’t make sense for each space to be a long, narrow rectangle.”

The plan does not yet specify how the perimeters will be marked. Though different ideas have been considered, both Lane and Comstock said city staff and the arts commission should be the ones to develop the markings in a simple, appealing and pragmatic manner.

“Moving forward, the idea is that it probably won’t be anything super elaborate,” Lane said. “In the first trial period we’re not going to want to invest a lot of energy and money.”

The spaces could also allow for other community-minded activity beyond performing or selling crafts in the future, Lane said. Downtown space could be used to educate residents on issues or facilitate group activities in a new way.

“The arts commission might want to take on some kind of proactive programming in some of the downtown spaces,” Lane said.

The public voiced frustration at Tuesday’s meeting about the new idea. Residents expressed fear that the designated zones took away from residents’ right to freedom of speech. Many spoke about feelings of inconsistent or selective enforcement from the Santa Cruz Police Department or downtown community workers when dealing with street performers under the current restrictions.

“It is a problem that the rules right now are so complicated that it becomes a personal thing,” councilmember Micah Posner said. “A specific policeman, a specific downtown host or specific business owner is interpreting these laws and entering into this unpleasant relationship with freedom of speech.”

The new rules would make it less likely for selective enforcement or misunderstandings between law enforcement and performers to take place. As performers with tabling devices know where they would be required to stand, and would be allowed to see the perimeter space marked on the floor for them, mishaps would be less likely to occur.

While some feel the new recommendation is a step in the right direction because it clarifies the restrictions placed on performers, some still view the restrictions as harmful to individuals.

“Most of the street performers down here want to perform because they don’t want to be put in a box,” one community member said before City Council. “That’s what you’d be doing — putting our performers in a box.”