Walking down Flushing’s Main Street can be highly stressful. The Transport Department estimates that every weekday peak hour, up to 8,000 pedestrians jostle for space with people lining up for buses and solicitors handing out advertisements on the narrow sidewalks.
Exacerbating the overcrowding problem, merchants in downtown Flushing’s Main Street have increasingly been moving their wares out on the sidewalks. And some pedestrians are upset.
Retailers say they need the sidewalk stands.
“Usually the items I place outside sell better because it’s convenient for people to walk past, take a glance, and decide if they want to buy. They don’t have to come inside,” said Guan Lin, 50, owner of the Lucky Bamboo flower shop.
By law, merchants need to get what is called a “stoop line stand” license, which allows them to display items up to five feet in front of their stores, depending on the width of the sidewalk.
“Problems arise when merchants break the law,” said Dian Yu, executive director of the Flushing Business Improvement District. They encroach on more sidewalk space than they are legally allowed, make a mess of the sidewalks, or they don’t apply for the licenses at all.
In the half-mile stretch along Flushing’s main thoroughfare, Main Street, a quick tally shows 25 shops with sidewalk stands. Just 10 displayed licenses, of which at least two have expired. That does not include shops on the avenues branching off Main.
Many without the licenses claimed ignorance when interviewed.
“So long as we keep to the line, we are fine,” said Kenny Kong, a phone accessories sales assistant, pointing to “the line” made by the sidewalk slabs which extend three to four feet from the storefront. He opens the glass doors of his store two feet onto the sidewalks and hangs merchandise on them. Technically, he hasn’t used any ground space.
“It’s the unspoken rule that everyone follows here,” Kong said. “The line is the safe zone.”
At Flushing Golden Shopping Mall, a row of hole-in-the-wall stalls are so small that they have to place foldable tables or boxes on the sidewalks to peddle goods like pirated one-dollar DVDs, bonsais, and leather shoes. Neither the storekeepers nor the mall management would disclose if they had obtained licenses.
“They settle their own licenses. I only rent out the space to them,” said the mall manager, who would be identified only as Zheng.
A woman runs a fashion accessories stall the size of two school-desks combined. “If law enforcement officers raid the place, my summons will be paid for by the landlord,” said the woman, Chen, who declined to give her first name for fear that her landlord will be unhappy with her speaking to the media.
“I pay my rent to the DVD stall-owner, not the building management — $800, just for this tiny table,” she whispered. “Of course they have to pay the fines, right?”
Although these stalls take up almost half the walking space, the owners make no apologies.
“Don’t you understand? We rented this space from a private developer, from the building management. We are allowed to set up the tables here, within five feet of our store,” the DVD stall salesperson said indignantly.
But these stoop-line stands, legal or illegal, are making it a nightmare to navigate through Flushing’s notoriously over-capacity sidewalks.
“People stop or slow down to look at the items on display outside,” said resident Lisa Lee, who’s unhappy about the inconvenience caused.
For brisk-walkers like Vicky Su, trudging down Main can be especially frustrating.
“To make matters worse, when the supermarkets are closing at around 7 or 8 p.m., they will place boxes of fruits in the middle of the sidewalk,” she said. “We are left with only one-third the space to walk on.”
Many pedestrians like Peter Zhao end up walking in the streets instead.
“Well, I have no choice if I’m rushed for time and people are blocking my way, right?” he shrugged matter-of-factly.
Concern about the crowded sidewalks was raised at the 109 Precinct Community Council meeting earlier this month.
Some residents have suggested resurrecting what former City Councilman John Liu started but failed eight years ago due to fierce opposition from green-grocers: introducing a bill banning sidewalk displays.
“I hope the city bans the sidewalk stands, or at least reduces their sizes,” Zhao said. “Sidewalks are primarily for pedestrians, not for business-owners.”
Community Board 7 had then actively pushed for the bill, said Marilyn Bitterman, the district manager, and they still believe it should be done. “We mentioned it to Councilman [Peter] Koo a while ago, so the ball is now in his court,” she said.
But according to Koo’s chief of staff, James McClelland, it’s the Department of Consumer Affairs that’s controlling the issue.
“We need a multi-agency approach. But the Department of Consumer Affairs is not as responsive as we’d like. Councilman Koo is now trying to schedule a walk down Main Street with the commissioner himself.”
McClelland added that a total ban is “a possibility, but will not be popular.” Instead, focus should be on cleaning out the illegal sidewalk stands and educating vendors on the need to get a license.
But proponents of the ban might find an unlikely ally in at least one supermarket manager, who declined to be named because of a conflict of interest with his position.
“The city just wants to earn revenue from licensing stoop-line stands. Flushing will be so much cleaner and nicer if we banned them across the board.”