Publicola highlighted my comments about taco trucks and tax increment financing on their regular Think Tank feature. I pointed out that street food is a solution in search of problem. I’ve said similar things around town and on Facebook. I love street food, like a good taco crepe with organic cilantro and Beecher’s cheese just like the next guy. But the street food debate is a distraction. It could even be worse than that, though. If we get too crazy converting developable land to food cart play grounds, we may be handing NIMBYs another card to play down the road.
Let’s say we figure out how to turn some lots that right now don’t have any development into Portland-like street food havens, actually big developable vacant lots. What happens when the housing market shifts and the property owner wants to do the right thing and develop more housing. Will my colleagues and fellow “green urbanists” support the housing in favor of the food carts? Will we join a chorus of NIMBYs and anti-gentrificationistas to oppose the destruction of street food? Or will we look for a Seattle compromise that further jams up new development.
Please, folks, think this one through. Remember what I used to call Saxman Park, the former vacant lot on Pine and Summit that was the source of lots of pointless controversy a few years back. Fortunately this is what Saxman Park looks like now.
Imagine for a moment if during the time between the project getting shut down and breaking ground a happy little throng of food vendors took up residence on this lot. Maybe there would have been Thai food, crepes, hot dogs, and whole roasted organic free range back yard chicken stuffed with P-Patch grown vegetables.
Imagine then, the movement that would form to “save our street food!” The movement would grow, spook council into taking action to “protect the neighborhood,” and perhaps there would be a stalemate. The street food would stay for some period of time. Or would the Council devise a Transfer of Development Rights program for street food–or more appropriately “vacant lot food.” Let’s be sure that street food is the outcome of good land use decisions, not a hinderance to welcoming more growth.
Putting groovy stuff in places where the market is lagging is a really pragmatic and good idea. I support it whole heartedly. But when the market indicates more housing is possible we need to get out of the way and build it. Change, some of us believe, is good. But populating parts of our city with interim solutions that become permanent, and turn into a rallying point of resistance to growth is a bad idea.
I am hoping the Council doesn’t take the bait. I am hoping they just pass some simple reforms that lower the costs of getting a cart permitted, reduce the red tape, and let the market do the rest. Let the food carts roll!
As I said in Publicola, Instead of a long debate on expanding street food, the Council should be getting into a discussion about land use. And I don’t mean just revising the Comprehensive Plan with lots of hopeful language. How about a comprehensive review of the code followed by some big shifts toward density and Transit Oriented Development. Or we can spend the next six months arguing about how many more taco trucks we’re going to permit.
And fellow urbanist types, please let’s be careful what we ask for here. Many of you will say I am crying wolf here (not Chuck Wolfe, just wolf!). Maybe these concerns won’t come to pass because we’ll be careful, and not overplay the issue. Maybe these concerns won’t come to pass because street food will look different here than it does in downtown Portland. Or maybe I am Cassandra. I hope not.