Mountain View Voice

News - January 25, 2013

Allow food trucks downtown?

by Daniel DeBolt

Increasingly popular food trucks serving gourmet and exotic foods could either add spice to Mountain View's thriving downtown or hurt the area's restaurants, depending on whom you ask.

At a City Council meeting last week, members discussed a proposal to keep food trucks off busy Castro Street, with a slim majority in favor of allowing the trucks downtown.

Some cities, such as Portland, have embraced food trucks in their city centers, even bringing in utilities for them to park long-term. But food trucks aren't wanted by the city's downtown committee and the Central Business Association, which represents downtown businesses.

"These trucks take away business from the established 'brick-and-mortar' restaurants that have worked so hard and paid thousands of dollars to be here," writes Julie Smiley, director of the central Business Association, in a recent letter to the council. It notes a list of taxes and fees levied on downtown restaurants that food trucks don't have to pay.

Council members Ronit Bryant, John Inks, Mike Kasperzak and Margaret Abe-Koga indicated some support for allowing food trucks downtown, though some suggested it might be limited to parking lots such as that of St. Joseph's Church, for example.

"If there's extra space, why not?" said council member Ronit Bryant. She noted parking lots near the train tracks on Evelyn where it would be "really fun to have food trucks there."

"Let's make it easy," Bryant said. "It is a new experience our residents want to have."

City staff members said that the trucks pose a safety issue if parked on busy Castro Street, encouraging patrons to jaywalk or possibly drawing crowds to sidewalk, forcing people to walk in the street.

"I personally don't have problem restricting mobile food vendors on public streets and sidewalks downtown," said council member Chris Clark. "Given our compact downtown I think here are legitimate safety concerns there."

Mayor John Inks disagreed.

"I scoured this report looking for the genuine public safety issues and it's not really manifest," Inks said. "These food trucks are not much of a real problem. This is an ordinance for the sake of having an ordinance. I'd probably shelve this thing."

"I actually think being restrictive downtown is going too far," said council member Mike Kasperzak. "North of California Street, maybe, but not the entirety of Castro. People love the downtown area — that's one of the things that could be an added draw and is certainly an added draw in other cities."

Member John McAlister was less interested.

"Being the business owner of a brick-and-mortar business, I know it's cost me plenty of dollars," said council member John McAlister, who owns the city's Baskin Robbins. He said he opposed allowing food trucks downtown.

Code enforcement officer Chris Costanza said he had not heard a complaint about a food truck downtown in two years. City Attorney Jannie Quinn said mobile food vendors had a "gentle-person's agreement" to not park downtown while the city considers an ordinance.

"In general, mobile food vendors do not want to cause trouble or wreak havoc," said Dan Hugo, acting director of the newly founded Bay Area Mobile Food Vendors Association.

Quinn noted the city's concern with a particular mobile food business that has been seen parked for near Clyde's Liquors "for multiple weeks at a time."

To deal with that, Quinn recommends "a (temporary use permit) be obtained when a vendor remains on private property for more than 4 hours," she said in an email.

Also a concern are whether to allow food trucks within 100 feet of schools, as is currently allowed, or to extend the allowed distance to 500 feet. Local school districts support the longer distance, citing concerns about whether trucks are serving healthy food and may encourage students to put themselves at risk by jaywalking to get to a food truck. Mountain View Whisman School District wants to be able to have food trucks cater special school events when needed.

"If we just push it out into the neighborhood we are just going to have more problems with neighbors having students in front of their houses," Abe-Koga said. City staff had said they could not regulate food trucks parking on public residential streets.

"I don't want to ban them completely from downtown streets either," Abe-Koga said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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