Food carts gone; Chinatown lot owner fights back

Wright warns he'll complain about city's other 'illegal' carts
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Michael Wright doesn't hate food cart owners, but that won't stop him from trying to put dozens out of business. Wright's property at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street had two food carts until the city forced him to remove them last week.

Michael Wright has it in his mind to force the city to shut down dozens of Portland food carts, and he might be able to do it - by filing complaints against cart owners.

It's not that he has anything against food carts scattered around the city, mind you. He's just angry. He's angry because Portland city officials have forced him to remove the two food carts he had as tenants on his own vacant lot, at West Burnside Street and Northwest Fourth Avenue.

That property is about as high profile as they get in Portland, right next to the Chinatown Gate. It used to be the site of Cindy's Adult Bookstore before the city, in 2007, forced Wright to close that establishment along with its catalog of code violations and reputed criminal activities.

But the empty lot where Cindy's once stood has not exactly provided a welcoming gateway to Chinatown or downtown. Homeless people have been seen urinating in the lot, and graffiti has flowered on an abutting wall.

Last summer, Wright began renting space on the lot to two food-cart owners, who say their presence helped maintain a sense of order on the site. At least, fewer late-night wanderers saw fit to relieve themselves against the back wall, according to Gaufre Gourmet cart owner Charlene Wesler.

But the city Bureau of Development Services has maintained that Wright's empty lot is not appropriate for food carts. The city has fined Wright $540 a month for having the carts there. The fine would have doubled to $1,080 a month starting last week.

So, Wright told the cart owners last week that they had to go, and they have. But he's not stopping there.

The bureau's position is that food carts are vehicles and can only settle on paved parking lots. Wright's site is not a parking lot. Wright has offered to pave the property and call it a parking lot, but the city has a moratorium on new parking lots, so that won't work, city officials say.

Wright could remove the wheels from the food carts so they aren't considered vehicles, but that won't work either, city officials say, because then the carts become structures and Wright would have to meet all sorts of building codes to keep them there.

Wright was stuck, and he is fighting back. He says there are dozens of food carts around the city on gravel properties just like his, which means they should all be considered illegal. City officials confirm that's probably true. Wright was singled out, they say, because of a complaint about his mini-food cart pod. Nobody has complained about the other carts, officials say.

Wright has been driving around town noting the addresses of food carts he finds on unpaved lots. 'So far I've got about 15, and I have just gotten started,' he says.

Wright's plan is to collect locations of as many 'illegal' carts as he can and turn them over to the city as formal complaints, then sit back and watch what happens.

'We'll either put 50 people out of business or make a lot of people mad or find out why I'm the only person in town who can't have a food cart,' he says. 'They'll put them out of business or I'll start another lawsuit.'

Wright sued the city in federal court, claiming that the city arbitrarily enforced its code when it forced him to shut down Cindy's. The suit was dismissed in April.

Alternatives for the site

Ed Marihart, Bureau of Development Services interim program manager, confirms that carts throughout the city that are parked on gravel are violating city codes. Told of Wright's plan to lodge complaints against others, Marihart says, 'We hear that a lot from people.'

Marihart says the city will respond to the complaints.

'If he wants to go out and report 10 or 20 or whatever properties, we'll go out and get to them as our time allows,' Marihart says. 'If they're in violation, we'll follow up with enforcement.'

That enforcement would come in the form of the same fines levied on Wright's property.

Wright, with a murder conviction in his past, is convinced somebody with clout is trying to force him to sell his property by taking away income opportunities. But he doesn't know who - complaints to the city bureau are kept confidential.

'They say they're complaint-driven,' Wright says. 'I didn't know we lived in a world where you have laws that are only applied when you have a complaint. There's either a regulation or there's not. That's a lousy way to run a government. You make a rule, you enforce it.'

Wright is considering other alternatives for his property.

'I'll donate it to Dignity Village for a year,' he says. 'If they can get the permits, that's a good way for people to be greeted when they come over the (Burnside) bridge. I think the city of Portland deserves it.'