DUMBO ice cream trucks flaunt rules, make residents miserable — and haul in the bucks
They’re also fed up with elected officials who have done nothing about their complaints for more than a year. They’re particularly frustrated with City Councilmember Stephen Levin, who, they say, has been backing the ice cream vendors and actively working to get their fines reduced.
Trucks owned by Mr. Softee, Brooklyn Ice Cream and other brands park in crosswalks, at hydrants, in bicycle lanes, next to DUMBO’s Open Restaurants and in no-parking zones with their motors running for 10 hours or more every day, according to neighbors. If confronted by police, the trucks just drive around the block and return to the same spot when the coast is clear.
Families living above the trucks say they haven’t been able to open their windows all summer because of the fumes and noise. And now with COVID-19, there’s nowhere to escape to.
Members of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association and the DUMBO Action Committee said the problem is only getting worse. Members have filed hundreds of complaints via 311. They have written to city officials and met with neighborhood police, but nothing has worked.
Fulton Ferry resident Martha LaBare told the Brooklyn Eagle that she filed more than 50 complaints to 311 over the past two months. The typical response she gets from 311 is that the police “took action to fix the condition.” LaBare, however, has provided time-stamped photos of the same trucks returning to their illegal locations as soon as the police drive away.
“Why does Shake Shack have to obey the rules and these guys don’t?” LaBare asks.
Bill Stein, a board member of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, told the Eagle that traffic sometimes backs up on Water Street from Old Fulton Street, all the way to Main Street, because of the trucks.
On a recent Sunday, “It took the B25 bus 15 minutes to get from Main to Old Fulton … There was only one lane of traffic on the River Cafe block because the parking lane is now used for Open Restaurants.” The ice cream truck drivers blocked the only remaining traffic lane, he said.
“It’s out of control and we have been asking the 84th for more enforcement, but systemic change also must come,” said Alexandria Sica, Executive Director of the DUMBO BID. “At times there are 12 ice cream trucks in DUMBO, 75 percent of them parked illegally and now adjacent to some of the outdoor dining spaces that small businesses are investing in to help stay afloat.”
More than 340 residents have signed a Change.org petition asking the city to add DUMBO and Fulton Ferry to the city’s Mobile Food Vending Restricted Streets list, which would restrict all vendors.
Most of the complaints come from Water Street, Old Fulton Street and Cadman Plaza West (the 311 system sometimes assigns this name to Old Fulton Street), along with Washington and Main streets.
Levin: Vendors are an ‘important part of New York City’
LaBare said neighborhood groups were told at an 84th Precinct Community Council that Councilmember Levin “was on the trucks’ side.”
Levin confirmed this past Friday that he supports street vendors because so many are immigrants or people of color. He has been working with the Street Vendor Project, part of the Urban Justice Center, for about a decade. In 2013, a bill that Levin introduced to lower the maximum fines on vendors from $1,000 to $500 passed the City Council.
“Vendors are an important part of New York City,” Levin told the Eagle, “And most don’t have access to capital to support their families.
“They have to obey the law — I’m not asking that it be the Wild West,” he said. “If they’re in an illegal spot, they should get tickets. But I don’t support thousand-dollar tickets.” He added that he’s not in favor of no-vendor zones.
Levin said that if trucks are parked illegally, his constituents should “send it over to me and we’ll work to get the message to vendors that they have to find a legal place to operate. But we have to make sure that everybody is clear [about the rules] first,” he said. If trucks still don’t get the message, “We’ll work with the Precinct,” he said.
Stein said he wasn’t buying it.
“It’s ludicrous to suggest that the drivers have to be educated that parking is illegal in crosswalks, at hydrants, in no standing zones, double parking, or in bus stops and bicycle lanes before they can be issued tickets,” he scoffed. “I’m afraid that the Councilmember is trying to gaslight us, but we’re not buying it.”
Brooklyn Ice Cream is ‘a problem’
One of the worst offenders is Brooklyn Ice Cream, operated by Eddie Cumart, residents said. (Brooklyn Ice Cream is unrelated to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory). Cumart’s company, Tematex, Inc. was registered in 2017.
Cumart, who operates dozens of trucks across the city, is infamous for finding loopholes in the city’s vending laws. He boasted that the cops “can’t touch me” after numerous complaints about noise and fumes in Dyker Heights during the Christmas light season.
Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents Dyker Heights, is familiar with Eddie Cumart’s ploys to circumvent the law. Cumart is “a problem,” Brannan told the Eagle.
During last winter’s Dyker Heights Lights Christmas season, Cumart’s ice cream trucks idled outside people’s homes for 12 hours a day. After residents complained to Brannan that their quiet residential neighborhood was “turning into Times Square,” Brannan successfully sponsored a bill banning street vendors from Dyker Heights during the holiday.
Cumart, however, was able to get around the law by abusing a policy designed to help disabled veterans, Brannan said. Cumart claimed his “partner” was a disabled veteran, exempting him from the regulation.
“We passed a law to ban them last Christmas. He exploited the loophole by paying a disabled veteran $40 a night to sit in his truck while he made thousands of dollars. He tries to wrap himself in the flag of entrepreneurship, but he has no respect for the communities in which he operates, and he exploits disabled veterans,” Brannan told the Eagle. “That’s his M.O., and he’s totally contemptible about it.”
Adding to the problem are arcane and confusing rules, and agencies with different jurisdictions, Brannan said.
“It’s an alphabet soup and hard to enforce, and guys like Eddie exploit this,” Brannan said. “They often know the rules more than enforcement does.”
Playing the anti-immigrant card?
An insider familiar with the situation told the Eagle that when some Councilmembers sought to examine the impacts of an increased number of vendors on brick-and-mortar establishments or sidewalk congestion, these concerns were framed by others as anti-immigrant, making consensus on legislation difficult. Some local businesses have hesitated to go on the record with complaints for the same reason.
But residents say there’s a difference between immigrant street vendors and professional operators with fleets of trucks.
“It’s disappointing that [Councilmember Levin] continues to equate independent street vendors struggling to make a living with a belligerent, arrogant ice cream truck fleet owner who proudly flaunts his ability to subvert the rule of law,” Stein said.
Another “weird dynamic” in place is that police are cautioned against doing too much targeted enforcement lest they be accused of harassment, said Community Board 2 District Manager Robert Perris.
“This seems to be a well-established reality as far as NYPD Legal is concerned,” Perris said, adding that he has run into this same issue when it came to sanitation complaints in his district.
“Where is the arbitrary line? Three tickets is okay but four is harassment?” he asked. In DUMBO, tickets are just considered the cost of doing business, Perris said.
In regard to a request for increased targeted NYPD enforcement of the DUMBO vendors, Levin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Glomani Bravo-Lopez said, “I personally have been criticized by colleagues of mine for daring suggest that vendors — whether carts or food trucks — have to abide by laws and regulation or face tickets.”
Toba Potosky, a District 33 candidate, said, “I believe strongly in economic opportunity, but there needs to be a reasonable compromise.”
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