The St. Petersburg City Council has approved an ordinance that bans unpermitted vendor tables and “table-like objects” that attract crowds and block sidewalks, despite concerns about the specific activities it will prohibit.
Council members passed the initiative, which significantly expands a 2019 ordinance limited to the downtown core and Beach Drive, by a 5-3 vote at the June 15 public hearing. The exclusionary zone now stretches from the St. Pete Pier west through the Grand Central District and includes Mirror Lake, Tropicana Field and Albert Whitted Park.
City officials enacted the current ordinance – which prohibits people from conducting business along sidewalks – before the Pier opened and areas like the Edge District became pedestrian hot spots. St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) legal advisor Laura Roe said people realized they could circumvent the law by accepting “donations” for goods and services, and that the tables and stands are spreading throughout the area.
“We’ve had great compliance with this issue,” Roe said. “The issues that we see are that tables are starting to appear on rights of way in other parts of the city, and they’re really starting to expand their scope.”
She added that some pedestrians must step in roadways to avoid crowds gathered at tables and podiums. After over a year of discussion and gathering community feedback, administrators updated ordinance language to permit suitcases, bags and carts for transporting personal items.
However, several public speakers still expressed concern over what the law would prohibit. Residents and nonprofit representatives said they could no longer provide overdose treatments, help the homeless or exercise free speech.
Some said it would hurt artists and musicians and that the permitting process was overly cumbersome. Multiple speakers relayed that they have never noticed a problem and that banning objects that attract a crowd is open to broad interpretation.
Carla Correa, a St. Pete Tenants Union member, called the ordinance “a ban on free expression in downtown public spaces and an attempt to further criminalize poor and working-class people.”
St. Pete Fire Rescue Chief Michael Domante said that he understood the emotional debate and that “there’s certainly a time and a place” for public expression. While he said that was not for him to decide, Domante highlighted the importance of keeping entryways, exits and fire hydrants clear during emergencies.
“Whether that’s tables, chairs, easels, you name it – anything that’s between us and getting in quickly is potentially a problem,” he added. “I think sometimes that the owner-operators don’t quite understand the significance of exactly where those things should be to allow us access into that building and give occupants a way out.”
Roe explained that city officials could help people identify appropriate spaces through the permitting process. She also noted that the ban would not apply to green spaces, another public concern with helping the unsheltered.
Assistant City Attorney Brett Pettigrew later clarified that the ordinance includes walkways in the Pier District and parks. It also extends to landscaped spaces but not “grassy areas.”
Roe relayed that people typically move when approached by the police, and the department has only issued one citation under the current ordinance. That was due to a man requesting the fine to fight the law in court.
Councilmember John Muhammed said that implies the problem is not pervasive and asked if the expansion was a preemptive measure.
“It’s actually something that we are currently seeing and experiencing,” Roe said. “We’re now starting to see the same activity that was really limited in scope to that sort of main downtown area expand down to the Pier District and west, even down to 34th (Street).
“More areas are being created that are walkable, more areas of development are going through and that’s why we are concerned about preserving those pedestrian pathways and rights-of-way.”
Roe added that officers would still evaluate violations and provide education before taking enforcement actions. Councilmember Richie Floyd believes that the SPPD would enforce the ordinance sparingly.
However, he noted the law would likely remain under new city leaders and officers and has the potential to impact specific demographics disproportionately and inequitably. “I don’t believe it will, but it could in the future,” Floyd said.
Councilmembers Gina Driscoll, Brandi Gabbard, Copley Gerdes, Lisset Hanewicz and Ed Montanari approved the expanded ordinance. Councilmembers Floyd, Muhammed and Deborah Figgs-Sanders voted against the measure.
The changes take effect June 22.