In her January newsletter, Uptown’s City Council Member Meg Tuthill mentioned that the City will soon consider expanding food trucks and carts to areas outside of Downtown. With that, she said, are a number of issues and questions that should be taken into consideration. Those include where should they be allowed to be located, such as on sidewalks, in parking lots, at parking meters; when they should be allowed to operate; should there be a limitation on how many can locate on a block; and more. I reviewed the some of the current rules in place a while ago, but I want to discuss these considerations along with some of the arguments for expanding and against expanding food trucks and carts to areas like Uptown.
The issue of where a truck or cart should be located is one of the bigger concerns that gets brought up a lot when discussing how to legalize mobile food vehicles. This often is the case because it relates to competition for existing food establishments and presents possible impacts on parking or sidewalks.
Parking Meters are often one of the prime locations in a business district, as they tend to be adjacent sidewalks with lots of foot traffic and allow food vendors to get incredibly close to the 100% location in a commercial district. They make it easy for hungry patrons (we’ll just call them consumers for simplicity) to access food.
However, they take up a parking stall that some would argue is there to manage the on-street parking supply. Often, traffic engineers state that optimal performance of on-street parking supply is 85%, as to ensure the street’s infrastructure is being used but also allowing for continual availability. Parking meters help regulate capacity by charging a fee to encourage longer term parkers to locate to off-street locations. Food trucks using these on-street stalls could lead to less stalls available to others. On the flip side, the food trucks would likely be required to plug the meter and there are ethical questions relating to the fairness of telling one user (food trucks) that they don’t have the ability to park there while someone going to a near by store or restaurant does have that ability to park. Granted, there often are regulations about commercial vehicles parking at meters.
So there’s the big question of whether they should be able to use parking meters as a location to sell food from, and then there’s also the issue of whether they have to plug the meter and how long they can park at the meter. Should they be able to stay longer than the posted maximum time? Can they park at 15 minute meters that are intended for quick trips?
The Southwest Journal has some additional coverage of a possible expansion into other Wards in the City.
Commercial parking lots are another place where food trucks often consider locating. There, they can work out arrangements with the lot operator or potentially get a good location with a bit more space than a parking meter or sidewalk location. In some cities, little villages of food vendors set up and provide more choice to consumers. But do these vendors reduce off-street capacity for others seeking that same parking? (The answer is ‘yes’ if the lot fills up frequently, but is that a problem?). The City currently restricts vendors to one per lot, which some argue is incredibly limiting of choice and doesn’t take into consideration the size of the lot, location of competition, or some of the other concerns that frequently get brought up when discussing food trucks.
Plazas are often places where people talk about wanting outdoor food vendors. It was encouraged by William H. Whyte, a famous sociologist whom studied plazas several decades ago and recommended food vendors as a way to add vibrancy to plazas. so should they be allowed? If so, are there space requirements to ensure any fire lane access is maintained?
What about your standard street? I’m thinking residential or commercial streets that don’t have restrictions on them. I live down the block from the park and during the summer ice cream trucks sometimes come by. But perhaps there’s a good argument to be had in allowing vendors on any street so that little leagues can enjoy concessions during soccer and baseball games. Maybe there’s a large employer on a block but few food options near by (think Coloplast in North Minneapolis), where food trucks would be able to add some diversity to their diets.
Sidewalks are currently legal locations for food trucks subject to restrictions and approvals. Questions that come up often relate to space requirements to allow for adequete space to manuever around them. But there are emerging concerns in Downtown Minneapolis, at least as mentioned by the Downtown Improvement District at a recent meeting, that there may be infrastructure impacts of having big vehicles driving onto and sitting on the sidewalks. So that may mean size and weight restrictions.
Hours of Operation
When should you be able to buy food or drink likely depends on where you are talking about. It also depends on the stance the City takes on where the vendors will be allowed to operate. The concerns likely relate to noise and smell more than anything else. This may mean a system tied to some sort of street classification, like residential, commercial, industrial, and parks. Or perhaps the City’s planning designations like Activity Center (think 26th/Nicollet, Hennepin-Lake, Dinkytown), Commercial Corridors (Hennepin, Lyndale north of 31st), Community Corridors (Hennepin from 36th to 31st), Neighborhood Nodes (36th & Bryant), and then everywhere else.
The City currently allows restaurants veto power over the location of food trucks within 100 feet of their main door. Should this be allowed to continue? Understandably, a pizza restaurant would be pissed if a pizza food truck undercut them from right in front of their business. But should a restaurant have that say?
The City currently doesn’t allow mobile food vendors to put out chairs for people to sit on. I’m assuming this is because of concerns about impacting restaurants with outdoor dining. But in a town with limited public seating, should vendors be able to put out a limited number of seats so people don’t have to stand and eat? If so, conditionally?
Should brick and mortar businesses be that concerned with mobile food trucks? Some argue that these vendors have lower overhead and thereby can “steal” business away by undercutting them. This may be a competitive advantage, but a bricks and mortar restaurant may have a competitive advantage by having bathrooms, indoor dining, table service, air conditioning, or other services. But there do appear to be cases where a consumer may indeed pick a mobile food vendor solely based on price, but that alone may or may not justify restricting mobile food vendors.
Lastly, the issue of property taxes has come up. Some have argued that mobile food vendors either don’t pay property taxes or don’t pay a similar property tax to that of where they sell. While being mobile may seem to imply that there isn’t property to pay a tax on, the City currently requires (and will likely continue to) mobile food vendors to operate out of a commercial kitchen. Presumably, the vendor pays some sort of rent to that kitchen, and that kitchen presumably pays rent to a landlord, and that landlord presumably pays property taxes. So in that case, property taxes are being paid in part by the food vendor. That said, the property taxes paid by food trucks is likely far lower than that of a bricks and mortar restaurant in a popular part of town, as the kitchen is probably located in a lower-rent area (industrial property or less-prime location commercial) and therefore is being taxed on a lower taxable market value. The counter point though would be that a bricks and mortar restaurant may have a higher upside by having more competitive advantages than that of a food truck and can make more money and have a similar or better percentage of revenue going to real estate taxes.
So what did I leave out? Do you have opinions on extending this to Uptown?
If you live, work, own property in Ward 10, Council Member Meg Tuthill is looking for your input now!
Also, our first Question of the Week is about street food cuisine.
Disclosure: the author of this post works for a company that owns both buildings home to bricks and mortar restaurants and to commercial parking lots, and has overseen the development of a commercial kitchen available to mobile food trucks. The comments above represent the view of the author and may or may not be similar to that of his employer or affiliates.