A virtual helicopter ride at the Empire State Building can keep its ticket sellers in business on nearby streets after an appeals court said Thursday they didn't need licenses that are currently impossible to get.
The ruling reversed a lower court's decision in a case that pitted a quirky tourist attraction that says its survival depends on the street hawkers against city officials, who say they were trying to enforce a longstanding law meant to curtail crowding on busy sidewalks.
For the attraction, NY Skyride, "the decision is literally a life-saver," said its attorney, Randy Mastro. The city Law Department, meanwhile, said it was disappointed in the ruling and considering its options for a next move.
Skyride's owners sued the city last spring after six hawkers were arrested and 14 were ticketed on charges of unlicensed vending.
The attraction employs 40 street agents and contracts with 27 more to rove sidewalks near the landmark skyscraper. They sell roughly 60 percent of all tickets to the ride, which simulates a heart-pounding aerial tour of the city skyline, with actor Kevin Bacon narrating.
The ride owners said in court papers that their nearly 18-year-old business was being singled out for enforcement because the Empire State Building's management scorned Skyride's employees and customers as "riffraff" and leaned on police to help get the business out of the tower. A building owner has called the claims baseless.
The city said Skyride's street agents were simply lucky to have previously escaped attention under the vending law, which requires a license to sell "goods or services" on the street. The waiting list for the license is closed at the moment.
A Manhattan state Supreme Court judge said in September that the arrests and tickets were based on proper police considerations, and officials were within their rights to say the street ticket sales required a vending license.
But a Supreme Court Appellate Division panel said Thursday the licenses weren't needed because the ride is a form of entertainment, not a good or service.
"A sports fan doesn't refer to a ball game as being a `service.' Similarly, music lovers do not talk about the `service' they received when listening to a concert," the appeals judges wrote. "...When one thinks of a `service,' as that word is ordinarily used, things like haircuts, home repair, house cleaning and car washes come to mind."
Interim court orders have allowed the ticket sellers to stay during much of the time since the arrests, but those orders lapsed and the sellers were off the streets from late December to early February, Mastro said.
The attraction tried other marketing strategies, but sales dropped 20 percent during that period, an already slow time of year, said Mastro, who was a deputy mayor when the ride opened. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani attended a celebration marking its opening.
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