Ruling throws Atlanta vending plans into confusion

Atlanta’s plans to give one company control over the management of vendors who sell t-shirts, snacks and beverages on public property — mostly sidewalks — has been struck down by a Fulton County judge.

But the ruling, applauded by small vendors, complicates rather than clarifies matters.

Last month, City Hall told the city’s remaining independent vendors that their permits would not be renewed when they expired on Dec. 31. They would need to go through a company called General Growth Properties if they wished to keep operating.

That directive was struck down in the Dec. 21 ruling. As City Hall grapples with the legal defeat, officials have directed Atlanta police not to renew licenses for vendors across the city. Currently, no permits have been issued for 2013.

That leaves the city in a race to craft new regulations enabling vendors to operate legally once the weather gets warmer. Without them, the ruling could spell serious confusion on Atlanta’s sidewalks.

The order by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua voided the city’s 2009 contract with Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the huge shopping mall operator. The 2009 contract was intended to bring order and regulation to Atlanta’s freewheeling street vending scene, including regular hours of operation and lists of goods approved for sale.

LaGrua said the deal effectively granted General Growth an exclusive franchise, in a violation of the city charter.

The city has until Jan. 22 to appeal. Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, which defended the ordinance and contract in court, hopes to roll out a replacement vendor program within a month, officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. New regulations would have to be approved by the City Council.

“What the ruling basically does is eliminate any vending program,” said David Bennett, senior policy advisor to Reed. “The old system is gone – it doesn’t come back. It doesn’t magically reappear.”

Food truck regulations are not affected by the Dec. 21 ruling, since food trucks are licensed to operate on private property.

As of December, General Growth had about two dozen locations in Atlanta, most at Woodruff Park downtown or at Little Five Points a few miles east. Independent vendors operated at about 30 other active vending locations.

William Wachtel, a spokesman for General Growth, said the company is “committed to working with the city to make the vending program a win for everyone, including the street vendors.”

Small vendors who sued to throw out the General Growth deal said LaGrua’s ruling eliminated an illegal monopoly and means they won’t have to seek work with General Growth Properties.

Turner Field vendor Larry Miller said he hopes to be ready for the Atlanta Braves’ opening day. But he will need a permit from the city to sell his snacks, bottled water and other items.

“I’ve been running my business for over 25 years,” he said. “I wasn’t willing to do a deal where I rent a spot from General Growth. That would be the worst thing to happen. I’m here, and I’ve been here.”

Former Mayor Shirley Franklin pushed the contract with General Growth as a way to clean up loosely-regulated vending that led to complaints about eyesores on public property.

The company won a 20-year deal to manage vending, with the city getting about $125,000 per year in revenue. In the first phase, General Growth set up kiosks near Little Five Points and Woodruff Park, which vendors could rent for a monthly fee: as little as $500 or triple that in some cases. The city’s annual renewal fee for independent vendors is $250.

The company then turned its attention to the Turner Field area. At one point, the company painted an outline of a future kiosk near Miller’s spot, said Robert Frommer, a Virginia-based attorney who represented Miller and another Turner Field vendor in the lawsuit against the city.

“For the city to sort of knock out the bottom rung of the ladder and say, ‘You can only do business with this billion-dollar corporation,’ that’s more than unfair — that’s unconstitutional,” Frommer said.