- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

A private business group's push to regulate the location and look of newspaper vending boxes in downtown D.C. is leaving newspapers big and small puzzled and concerned.

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID) has proposed a plan to institute an annual $60 fee per vending box for publications, and to regulate the type, number and location of the boxes. Proponents of the plan, introduced Wednesday by D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, say that something has to be done to help clean up business districts because the city has failed to take action.

" a comprehensive and creative approach to managing commercial activities in public spaces is best for the city and for the users of the public space," said Roberto Alvarez, a member of the executive committee of the Downtown D.C. BID and president of Cafe Atlantico and Jaleo.

"We were hearing so many complaints from vendors, property owners and managers, retail tenants, citizens, arts groups and city officials about the activities that take place on downtown sidewalks, and about each other, that we suggested that [this] was the only way to reduce tensions and create a better environment for everyone."

But newspaper publishers say the restrictions will hinder their sales and ability to distribute thereby restricting free speech.

"Newspapers must be able to reach their readers," said Kathryn Sinzinger, editor and publisher of local weekly the Common Denominator. "Readership drives a newspaper's ability to disseminate, to attract the dollars necessary to keep publishing. When you restrict [that], you eliminate our ability to function as what the Constitution of the United States intended us to be a free press."

Miss Sinzinger and other news organizations testified before the D.C. Council's consumer and regulatory affairs committee Wednesday that the fee might make it unfeasible for small newspapers and other businesses to survive.

USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, the Washington Afro-American, the Washington D.C. Informer and the Common Denominator testified against the bill because of the economic constraints it would place on publishing and the physical constraints it would place on the public's access to the news.

"It hurts my ability to manage my boxes," said Edgar Brookins, general manager of the Afro-American. "I need the flexibility to move the boxes when sales drop."

The Afro-American has almost 100 boxes. If fees were imposed, the small newspaper would be charged $6,000 annually, money Mr. Brookins says it can't afford.

Newspaper representatives also worried that the legislation would allow the business district to force newspapers to replace vending machines, which could cost news companies hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Brookins echoed other publications' executives when he complained that the papers had not been consulted about the plan.

"We all agree there is a need to clean up and get the boxes in order," he said. "But there was no real consultation before they put this plan together."

Since 1996, the city has created three business-improvement districts Georgetown, Downtown and the Golden Triangle. These are nonprofit organizations, which levy special property taxes to fund such services as street cleaning and other economic-development-friendly programs.

The Golden Triangle BID already has began a pilot program this year to regulate newspaper-vending boxes. This program, say newspaper and Golden Triangle representatives, is voluntary and collaborative, and involves the BID providing the new multipart boxes in specific locations.

The Downtown D.C. BID's proposal would allow the BIDs to manage "retail district enhancement zones" by empowering them to monitor compliance of vendors, signs and sidewalk cafes even though the city is the issuer of business permits in those zones.

The current bill is in the initial stages, but will be the subject of future public hearings and committee discussions.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large Republican, already is backing off the bill, calling it "anti-small business," and Mrs. Ambrose, chairman of the council's consumer and regulatory affairs committee, expressed misgivings at the hearing over portions of the bill. She was unavailable for further comment late yesterday.

While vendors vehemently oppose the bill, saying it threatens their livelihood, hospitality industry and other businesses support the measure, contending it would improve streetscape opportunities and is essential to economic development.

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs officials suggested a limited pilot project first.

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