“It’s what keeps Santa Cruz original as an outdoor cultural experience,” Alex Skelton said. He is an artist who has been selling his work on downtown sidewalks for the past two years as his main source of income.
Downtown street performing and vending regulations have been in flux for more than 20 years. The current rules, which were passed in October 2013, are expected to be modified on Dec. 18.
“We’re talking about people’s lives. We’re exercising our first amendment rights,” Skelton said. “Just because a business has a problem with it doesn’t take away from it being a public space.”
Rules in place include limiting the space a person can occupy to 12 square feet and banning people from performing or vending within 14 feet of buildings, benches, trashcans and pay phones.
“Last year’s changes were sparked by complaints from downtown business owners and shoppers saying there were too many street vendors,” said Vice Mayor Don Lane. “In an attempt to regulate the selling, street performers were overregulated. We didn’t want to discourage our street performers so we floated some ideas about making bigger spaces and making it clearer what spaces people can perform and sell in.”
Complaints from performers and community members regarding the current zoning rules pushed Lane and councilwoman Pamela Comstock to make changes.
The new changes, which were unanimously approved on Oct. 28 to be voted on at the Nov. 18 meeting, will set up 61 color-coded spaces along Pacific Avenue where vendors and performers can stay for up to one hour.
If passed, the rules will be implemented 30 days after being signed and will be given a six-month trial during which city staff can make adjustments to sizes and locations.
There will be 11 performance-only yellow spaces, 15 vending-only red spaces and 35 blue spaces which can be used for either. After staying an hour, performers and vendors must move to another marked space at least 100 feet away.
“The one-hour rule is actually great,” said Zach Gentry, a UC Santa Cruz student on a leave of absence who has been playing his guitar downtown for the past five months to support himself financially. “It gives me a fresh start, plus it’s unfair to anyone who shows up second if people stay in one spot all day.”
Gentry said the upcoming changes will also make it easier for him and other musicians to know where they’re allowed to perform.
“When we took on this new reform, we said we wanted to get rid of the 12-feet rule and the whole idea that you have to be ‘x’ number of feet from this or that. Just find the good, clear spaces on the sidewalk and mark the good ones,” Lane said.
The new rules make acceptable spaces clear to performers, vendors, police and other downtown enforcers like First Security.
“They mostly respond by complaint, it’s enforced by warning. Any time someone stays for over an hour, the police will initially tell them to move. If the person moves, there is no penalty,” Lane said.
Complaints are most often made by downtown businesses, which are divided in their opinions about having performers and vendors, according to the Downtown Business Association (DBA).
Conversations about this topic between the association — which represents over 600 businesses — and City Council have been ongoing for decades, said Chip, the executive director of the DBA.
“The ideal situation is that the businesses and street artists were more cooperative and understood each other’s challenges,” Chip said. “The reason we have all of these rules is because of the 10 percent who don’t consider compromising, and that’s on both sides of the issue.”
Mr. Goodies Antiques and Collectibles owner Kurt Havenam said he’s noticed more and more people starting to vend since he opened his shop downtown over 20 years ago. He added that if the trend continues, he fears downtown stores and restaurants will go out of business.
“Good street performers are great because they bring in lots of people,” Havenam said. “But street vending is unfair to the business owners who pay exorbitant taxes and rent.”
According to the law, people selling their own work have the right to do that on the sidewalk. The city can regulate it but not prevent it from happening, Vice Mayor Lane said.
“There’s a whole range of feelings among the business owners,” Lane said. “Some [businesses] wish there were no vendors and musicians. That is not what I prefer and I don’t think that’s what the community wants — plus that’s not legal.”
Frustrated by last year’s downtown rules, renowned performer Frank Lima, also known as The Great Morgani, halted his famous accordion-and-costume routine earlier this year in protest. Lima said the upcoming changes are “a step in the right direction,” and earlier this month he reignited his downtown performances.
“I’m happy there will finally be a simpler way of finding places to perform,” Lima said.
“The culture the artists bring to downtown, especially the musicians, is a big part of what makes Santa Cruz so amazing,” said Chip, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association. “But it does require some regulation.”