Lot tussle snags Chinatown food cart
City rule fight blocks landlord's attempt to make space for waffles
Forgive Michael Wright if he thinks his dealings with City Hall are getting personal. But, he says, it's hard to think otherwise. Given the sign on his property, you'd have to say Wright has been getting personal as well.
Wright owns the property at Northwest Fourth Avenue and West Burnside Street, which for the past couple of years has stood out like a missing tooth in the city's downtown smile.
The property, right next to the towering Chinatown gate, has been a vacant lot since the city forced Wright to close his Cindy's Adult Bookstore in 2007 because of multiple code violations. Wright razed the building in 2008.
Since then, the empty lot has been most notable as a spot where vagrants like to relieve themselves, and for the sign Wright himself put up which reads: 'Stop Randy Leonard's hit squad. Stop Randy's use of city bureaus for his personal gain and agenda.'
Stuck with a high-profile property for which he's asking $3 million, Wright decided about six months ago to join in with the city's commitment to the growing food cart revolution. He had the perfect site. He found a terrific first tenant in Charlene Wesler, whose Gaufre Gourmet waffles have been gaining a following - especially among the night owl crowd once the nightclubs let out. A second cart also moved in.
Wright says he planned to put in tables and plant trees and paint a mural over the graffiti-marred back wall.
So the city gets a high-profile food cart pod where a vacant lot now sits, and Wright gets some rental income while waiting for the day someone wants to buy his property. Everybody wins, in Wright's estimation.
But that's not how the city sees it. In a beauty of a Catch-22, Wright has been told the food carts have to go. In fact, a lien has been placed against his property - he's being fined $540 a month for letting the food carts stay, and that fine will double, the city Bureau of Development Services says, if the carts stay three months.
The Catch-22 goes like this: According to the bureau, the food carts are vehicles. And vehicles in the central city can only be parked on pavement. Wright's lot is covered in gravel.
Wright says he'd like to pave his property. In fact, that was his plan all along. But the city says he can't, because there is a moratorium on new parking lots in the central city.
The two food carts in place on Wright's property don't appear to be kicking up dust and mud, the reason the city says the lot would have to be paved. In fact, they don't appear to be kicking up much of anything, because they don't move. Wright has put in electricity and water hookups to service the food carts where they are.
As to why the city won't let Wright pave his property and make sure he doesn't use it as a parking lot, city officials say that just won't work.
The way city code is written, says Mike Liefeld, enforcement program manager for the Bureau of Development Services, food cart pods have to comply with parking regulations. Paved properties with vehicles on them - even if the vehicles don't have engines and do serve food - are parking lots. There is not a separate designation for paved food cart pods in city code.
'They don't want to call it a parking lot, but at the end of the day, (the) code calls it a parking lot,' Liefeld says.
Food cart spot?
Caught in the middle of all this is Wesler, a mother of three who works long hours at her food cart and extra hours as a Portland State University business student. Most of the downtown-area food cart pods are on parking lots owned by the Goodman family, and Wesler initially hoped she could land a spot for her cart in the popular Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street pod.
But Wesler says her industrial strength waffle iron, espresso machine and refrigerator draw around 50 amps worth of electricity. She says she was told by the manager of the 10th and Alder pod that tenant carts must draw much less. Wright, not having to provide electricity to dozens of carts at his Burnside Street property, told her 50 amps was no problem.
For her part, Wesler thinks the nascent Burnside Street food cart pod is a boon to the city. Late at night, she says, she chases away people trying to relieve themselves against the back wall. On Christmas Eve, and for the next two days, she and her children served free waffles to anybody who came by, including a number of homeless people.
As Wright's first tenant, she loved the fact that as more carts joined in, she had already secured the treasured corner spot.
'This spot just seems to scream out 'food cart spot,' ' Wesler says of the empty lot on Burnside. 'I know this isn't about me. I know we're caught in the crossfire. But we're just trying to be a small business here. This is my little dream.'
Now it looks like Wesler has two more months in her location, since Wright has told her she can stay as long as the lien the city is assessing just about matches her rent. But once the lien doubles, she has to go. Wesler says she's learned a lesson about politics.
'Sometimes you have to go through a really crappy situation to know just how little you are,' she says.
Wright says he's convinced that somebody has used influence at City Hall to force him to the point where he will have to sell his property cheap.
Fighting the city
To understand why all this might be personal, you have to understand Wright's history with the city. Cindy's Adult Bookstore was considered a cesspool of code violations and criminal activity until City Commissioner Randy Leonard used the leverage of his Housing Interdiction Team to close the place down.
Wright has a 1971 murder conviction and a cocaine distribution conviction in his distant past.
Wright, 65 and retired, sued the city in federal court, and Randy Leonard (who no longer heads the Bureau of Development Services), claiming arbitrary code enforcement led to the shutdown at Cindy's. That suit was dismissed two weeks ago. Wright says he may appeal.
He also says he's not surprised by the battle over his food carts. 'The city has always disliked me, hated me,' says Wright. 'I've been fighting with the city for a long time.'