Publication Date: Wednesday May 21, 1997

Some store owners stand up for sit-lie

Despite chamber support, some merchants are uneasy with new law

Georgie Gleim is of two minds about the sit-lie ban. As a businesswoman, she sees the need for it. On a personal level, however, she's uncomfortable with the new law. "It's one of those issues that I have very, very mixed feelings about," said Gleim, president of Gleim the Jeweler, one of the oldest businesses on University Avenue.

The merchant in her listens to patrons who complain about the panhandlers loitering outside her storefront. "Particularly the elderly customers find it uncomfortable," she said. Some have told her they will take their jewelry shopping elsewhere if the problem persists.

"I have to think about having a business, taking care of my customers and making sure my employees are OK," Gleim said. But her own personal perspective on the plight of the homeless conflicts with the voice of her business persona.

"I'm not necessarily comfortable with an ordinance like this," she said.

Gleim's view is typical of many downtown merchants. Some oppose the law outright. Most, however, support it from a business perspective.

Burger King manager Hamid Parvin, for example, said he believes the ordinance has helped business because customers in the past have felt intimidated by those sitting or lying outside the restaurant.

"Every single penny counts in my business, and I cannot afford to lose a penny." Before, said Parvin, "Customers did come in and complain."

Parvin said he has had difficult situations because of his restaurant's proximity to Lytton Plaza, a favorite gathering spot for panhandlers.

"I have had a case when someone was laying across the front door," said Parvin. Concerned that his customers would trip over the man, Parvin asked him to move.

"I know how to take care of myself," Parvin said the man responded. "Don't worry about if someone is going to trip over me."

Susan Frank, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber's position is simple: people sitting or lying on the sidewalk pose a physical danger to shoppers. "The foot traffic in downtown Palo Alto has changed significantly over the past five to eight years," Frank said. "We felt that it was a safety issue."

Frank denies claims that the chamber's support stemmed from a desire to get rid of the homeless downtown. Rather, she said, the nature of downtown Palo Alto--with its fancy shops and many restaurants--has become a destination point for far more people in recent years. That has made the sidewalks crowded and brought about a need for further order.

Downtown, Frank notes, has become such a commercial draw that the amount of retail tax it generates for the city has surged about 50 percent since 1989, from $1.47 million to $2.2 million.

While Frank said some merchants may not support sit-lie, she notes that the chamber's endorsement followed a 25-0 vote among its board of directors, as well as the recommendations of two chamber committees.

"Some of our members had mixed feelings, but our vote was taken after many months of discussion," Frank said. "I don't think the Chamber of Commerce would have supported this if they thought it were just a homeless issue. This is not targeted at any particular population."

Tracy Pelley, general manager of Noah's Bagels on University Avenue, disagrees. "Obviously, the ordinance is directed to the homeless population," said Pelley.

Pelley, who stressed that she is not speaking for the Noah's Bagel chain, said her store only has problems with panhandlers on an infrequent basis. Most of the time, she said, they don't cause any problems for customers and store employees have developed a rapport with many of them.

"The core people I see are not unruly or dirty, but there are some who don't clean up after themselves. When they cross that line, it gets to be a problem," Pelley said.

One panhandler, she said, has become a problem. The woman sometimes comes inside her store and cries.

She notes, however, that she has hired several of the area's homeless. One man, in particular, has become a valued member of her staff and has been promoted to baker.

Other downtown merchants say they have never had trouble with panhandlers.

Faith Bell, whose family owns Bell's Bookstore on Emerson Street half a block south of University Avenue, said the key is developing a relationship with the destitute.

Those relationships, for example, have led to her allowing a homeless man to shelter his possessions in the space beneath a bench in front of her bookstore on rainy days. Bell said their interaction has been one of mutual respect.

Manager of many stores, however, say that having a panhandler sit outside a shop has an immediate effect on the bottom line. Customers, they say, tend to avoid areas where people beg for money.

"It is a hindrance to commerce when people obstruct sidewalks," said Caroline Ragir, manager of Spirals Gallery on University Avenue, which is owned by Council member Micki Schneider. The sit-lie law, will improve downtown, Ragir said--"if it is enforced."

--Allison Otto and Shoshana Deutschkron