Be Selective on Food Truck Sites

Be Selective on Food Truck Sites

To the Editor:

The City of Alexandria is about to entertain the idea of food trucks. We can look at the issue from two perspectives.

First, setting up a food truck is far cheaper to set up than a regular restaurant. By some accounts, it is around 15 percent of the cost of setting up a regular restaurant, and as such, a way for people who really have a desire but not means to enter the market. The city has embraced this notion, even telling the Federation of Civic Associations they did. This creates two issues. Restaurants are not only expensive to set up, but are heavily regulated, especially in the Historic districts, whereas, food trucks are inexpensive and unregulated.

Second, from a policy perspective, allowing food trucks benefits under-served areas, commonly referred to as "restaurant deserts," but in "restaurant oases" such as Old Town, food trucks may undermine precarious balances between residences and restaurants in well served areas such as Old Town. It is a travesty to discuss restaurant signage for hours, only to encourage the same restaurant to put up a food truck as a living billboard without any constraints whatsoever.

Moreover, it is a bit fatiguing to hear city staff continually refer to Old Town as a "hardship posting" that requires an injection of vibrancy and food trucks. Undoubtedly, this is why we spend over a million dollars to transport people from Carlyle to lunch spots in Old Town. This money would be better served by putting food trucks in Carlyle instead of Old Town or around the BRAC area where the tenants requested it in the first place.

When this issue came before the planning commission, on a gross miscalculation that the commission would give it their blessing, the city staff was blown out of the water. The staff was criticized for the conclusions, the legal logic/ non-logic of their arguments, the process, and the direct falsification of the meager justification that had been proffered.

The city staff claims we cannot regulate in this instance. What they really should say is that they do not wish us to regulate. A best practice example is the City of Norfolk, which is more in tune with our planning commissioners, because they treat food trucks as a zoning issue, and do not allow them in the downtown business district other than in six designated spots by the light rail station awarded through a lottery. The Norfolk business community supported this, because it was viewed as a policy means to create activity.

I began by saying this was an issue that was starting to affect many cities, which prompted the National League of Cities to issue guidance for them to follow. In short, they suggested the cities do the following,

  1. Hold Town Hall forums and private meetings with core stakeholders.

  2. Encourage dialogue and the building of relationships among competing stakeholders.

  3. Implement pilot programs to determine what regulations to adopt.

  4. Use targeted practices as a way to address underserved areas of the city.

  5. Identify private vacant lots and create partnerships for mobile vendors to gather and vend in the same location.

Norfolk did all of the above, but the City of Alexandria set up a committee, then on its behalf sent a report to the city manager that did not correctly reflect its findings, who then sent an ordinance to the City Council that has no citizen or business support.

An analogy to this issue is that housing is expensive, and mobile homes serve an important function in providing housing to those who are unable to afford more, but we are not encouraging mobile home owners to camp in front of City Hall or the George Washington Memorial Highway and park wherever they like.

So if we are to do this, then let us choose spots across the city that need to be vitalized, not ridiculous choices like Old Town or Washington Street, and like Norfolk, do it as part of zoning that precludes the food trucks from operating at will throughout the city.

Poul Hertel