Lake Vendors said business dropped off at the new location and because of the weather, but they would like to see the city bring the market back in the spring. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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The Oakland City Council voted during a special committee meeting yesterday to approve a recommendation to fund several initiatives meant to support Lake Merritt street vendors and minimize large gatherings at the lake.

The initiatives, which were brought forward by District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, include additional parking and municipal code enforcement around the lake; utilization of street closures to accommodate vending; additional traffic control; and a permitting license for a Black Solidarity Market, a collaboration between community-based organizations and local vendors.

The recommendations will be heard by the full City Council at a meeting on Monday, Mar. 29 at 1 p.m.

The committee also voted to approve a report to assess the city’s eight-week street vending pilot program, established last fall as a stopgap solution to unpermitted street vending and large gatherings along Lake Merritt’s eastern shore.

“I do think there is an incredible opportunity to build off the vending program,” Fortunato Bas said during the meeting. “We have to act now.”

Last year, vendors—most of whom were Black or brown—began setting up shop along the lake’s eastern shore, without permits, as a means to support themselves during the pandemic. The makeshift marketplace became popular with many, though the ensuing traffic and noise drew vocal criticism from some Lakeshore residents.

The pilot program, instituted on Oct. 5, relocated the vendors from the eastern shoreline walkway to El Embarcadero, a small stretch of road linking Lakeshore Boulevard and Grand Avenue. The new location, which gets less foot traffic than the walkway, was intended to minimize large gatherings while allowing vendors to operate legally. The program, which cost $50,000, ended on Nov. 23, but some vendors have since continued to do business there.

A Lake Merritt working group convened by the city conducted a survey in February, which found that 63% of respondents believed that lake conditions either significantly or slightly declined, and very few people believed conditions have improved. Survey respondents were overwhelmingly white and identified themselves as Oakland residents, Joe DeVries, director of interdepartmental operations, said during the meeting.

Crime and violence were the top concerns for respondents, followed by a rise in homeless encampments, illegal dumping, environmental and wildlife impact, the spread of COVID-19, and equitable access to the lake. Half of the respondents had visited the vending pilot program and a majority believed it was very or moderately successful, according to DeVries.

“I think what people have been seeing play out at the lake over the last month is what happens when there isn’t a managed program along Lakeshore, Bellevue, and Grand where people are selling just about anything,” he said.

James Copes, a lifelong street vendor in Oakland who was involved in getting the pilot program started, spoke on behalf of the lake’s Black vendors at yesterday’s council committee about the increasing discontent between vendors and Lake residents. “I believe we can sit down together and have a conversation to find a compromise,” Copes said during the meeting. “I would like to see the neighbors actually come to me or call me so we can sit down and work this out.”

Lakeshore residents who called in to the meeting expressed their frustrations over what they consider excessive noise occurring on the weekends.

“I have a two-month-old newborn and I can’t keep her in certain parts of my home because the noise outside is literally rattling my windows and it wakes her up,” Greg Anderson said during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Coire Reilly, chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, called in to express his support for reinstituting the street-vending program. “We do support long term funding to work with this issue and I’m excited that hopefully this project will be infused with some funding,” Reilly said. “If reinforcement isn’t there, the project isn’t going to work.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.