Renting Sidewalks?

The city of Eugene has been encouraging local businesses recently to participate in a “sidewalk commerce” permit program, which consists of the city “renting” the public sidewalks in front of a business to the business itself as a “vending location.” This permit is different from the “outdoor cafe” permit program, which is what allows businesses to have cafe tables outside their establishments. The sidewalk commerce permit gives the business control of the adjacent sidewalk, so that they can theoretically conduct commerce on the sidewalk.

I say “theoretically” because members of EPD’s downtown police force made it very clear from the beginning that the motivation behind the recent encouragement for local businesses to participate was to give those businesses the legal authority to trespass “undesirable” people from in front of their businesses. The intent is not about sidewalk commerce; it’s about displacement.

Last month, I filed a public records request with the city of Eugene about the sidewalk commerce permit program, and they provided me with a copy of the contract and administrative rules that govern the permit program as well as a list of businesses that currently hold it. With the exception of The Kiva, which uses the sidewalk commerce permit to sell flowers and has done so for years, none of the downtown businesses that currently hold this permit are actually using the sidewalk as a “vending location,” which is how the space is described in Administrative Order 53-98-05-F that governs the permit. The businesses that currently hold a sidewalk commerce permit include Sizzle Pie, The Barn Light, Voodoo Donuts, Urban Lumber, Buy 2, Thunderbird Market and The Horsehead.

These businesses all have sandwich boards outside so that they can claim that they are using the space, but they are not using the space for its intended purpose of vending, and the employees of these businesses often tell people who are not customers to move off the sidewalk and then call the police if they do not comply with the order. Last month, a man who was conducting a poetry reading on the public sidewalk outside Sizzle Pie was arrested and charged with criminal trespass when he did not comply with orders to move from the spot. Businesses like Sizzle Pie, encouraged by the city and in conjunction with police, are misusing the law in order to displace the poor and homeless from downtown Eugene.

The permit is meant to allow businesses to vend on the sidewalk, not to trespass people who are exercising their First Amendment rights. Buskers are told they cannot be there regularly, as are panhandlers, and if they don’t move, they are arrested. Both the state and federal courts have made it clear that buskers and panhandlers have a right to express themselves on a public sidewalk. Not only is the permit program being used to displace the homeless, it’s also infringing on their constitutional rights.

There are a few steps that can be taken to fight this. First and most obviously, let these businesses know that you don’t approve of their actions. Public sidewalks are for everyone, and businesses should not have the authority or discretion to restrict the right of the public to use a public sidewalk. These businesses need to know that the folks who keep them in business are not happy with the fact that they are intentionally misusing a permit in order to clear their sidewalks of those they consider to be undesirable and bad for business.

Second, its important to stay focused on the fact that these businesses are not actually conducting any commerce or vending on the sidewalk, and therefore are not within the terms and definitions of the administrative rules that govern the city’s authority to issue such permits. Putting up a sandwich board does not constitute “vending,” and neither local government nor local businesses have the right to abuse the intent of a permit in order to further their goals of social cleansing.

Let the mayor, City Council and city manager know that the city’s misuse of this permit is a black mark against the strength of their leadership and their commitment to governing a “Human Rights City.” Such abuses are neither within the letter or the spirit of the law, and public space belongs to the entirety of the public.