Portland is known for its food carts and trucks, serving up dishes from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia to South America and everywhere in between, which congregate downtown and in other densely populated neighborhoods in "pods."
But in the Portland suburb of Tualatin, the City Council is discussing a proposed ordinance that would restrict the zoning districts in which food carts and trucks can operate — effectively banning them from Tualatin's central commercial area and requiring them to obtain special permits to operate temporarily in other commercial areas like Bridgeport Village.
Draft ordinance puts restrictions on mobile food vendors
Under the draft of the ordinance that city planning staff presented to the council on Monday, July 10, food carts and trucks would be allowed to set up shop in paved areas in manufacturing zones and business park areas, including in the vicinity of Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center in east Tualatin. They would be excluded from most commercial and residential areas.
Mobile food vending units would also provide their own garbage and recycling containers for customers and not connect to public or private utilities or block streets, driveways, sidewalks or paths. They would need to obtain a business license from the city to operate in Tualatin.
"Another thing we want to make sure (is) … all mobile food units have their wheels, and the wheels were not removed," said City Planner Charles Benson. "We want to make sure it's a temporary thing … make sure that these are not permanent structures."
Only one would be allowed to operate per "site," effectively ruling out Portland-style food cart pods for now, although Benson suggested that could be revisited if the City Council wants to look at it in the future.
"This is mostly for singular carts or singular uses. In terms of potential pods or pod locations, we thought that that is more of a kind of developing use, or a use on the site … which is something you'd like to address at a later time," Benson said. "If the council would like that, or the community would think that that's appropriate, we could look at that later."
The draft ordinance would create a distinction in Tualatin's city code between full-size food carts and pushcarts, which it specifies must be six feet long or less, non-motorized, and designed to be pushed or pulled by a person.
Pushcarts would be able to operate without a permit in downtown Tualatin and general commercial areas like Bridgeport Village, although they would need permission from a restaurant or produce market before setting up within 200 feet of it, as well as to operate on public or private sidewalks.
Restaurant industry concerned about food cart competition
Benson and Aquilla Hurd-Ravich, another Tualatin city planner, said the ordinance was developed through feedback from a task force formed last winter to study the issue of mobile food vending. Among the key players were the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce and the Commercial Citizen Involvement Organization, business groups that represent a significant number of Tualatin restaurants.
Cathy Holland, president of the CCIO, told The Times that her group wants to provide for having food trucks in Tualatin's industrial areas while protecting downtown restaurants from competition. A common source of criticism toward mobile food vendors from restaurant proprietors is that they have significantly lower overhead costs — it is generally much cheaper to purchase and run a truck or trailer than it is to buy or build a restaurant and pay for utilities, staff and other operating costs.
"We just have to strike a balance is our view on that," Holland said.
While Tualatin city councilors have seesawed throughout a debate on mobile food vendors that has now been running for close to two years on how restrictive they want city code to be in governing them, and a temporary ordinance in effect through the end of 2017 puts few limits on food carts and trucks in the city, the council has been generally sympathetic to the interests of Tualatin's restaurant-owners and explicitly asked that they be brought into the process of formulating a permanent ordinance late last year.
But one councilor Monday who was not present for most of the 2015 and 2016 meetings on the subject — Councilor Jeff DeHaan, who was appointed to an open seat in December — pushed back on that consensus.
"It does seem like there's a lot of food carts there in Portland, and it does seem like there's a lot of restaurants there in Portland, to me," DeHaan said, adding, "Is it necessarily the case that food cart hurts brick-and-mortar store? Has any research been done on that? I mean, there's food carts all over this country, and it would seem to me that in Portland, there's food carts that are cheek-to-jowl next to a restaurant, and both of them seem to be doing pretty well for me."
DeHaan concluded, "I would go for the most lenient food cart ordinance that we can come up with, and I am not convinced that the brick-and-mortar people need to run this thing. … I think we're overthinking this because of a few people that are against it."
Mayor Lou Ogden characterized the restaurant industry's opposition to having food carts and trucks as neighbors as a "visceral thing," although he conceded it may not be "logical." He said he wants to be supportive of the city's restaurants, noting that many contribute to the community as well.
DeHaan wasn't the only member of the council who suggested loosening the restrictions in the draft ordinance Monday. Councilor Robert Kellogg, who has a downtown law office, said he would like to see a provision for food carts and trucks to be able to operate in commercial office areas. That zoning was not included in the draft ordinance, Hurd-Ravich explained, because of its proximity to Tualatin's central commercial area and city staff's reluctance to rely heavily on "buffers" to keep mobile food vendors physically separated from downtown restaurants. The council also discussed what should be considered to constitute a "private catering event," exempt from the restrictions proposed in the ordinance.
The council was originally expected to consider adopting the ordinance after a public hearing next month. However, Hurd-Ravich told The Times on Thursday, July 20, that timeframe is being pushed back as city staff gather more public input at the direction ofthe council.
Editor's note: This story has been updated Thursday, July 20, with the latest information on the process, including the public hearing originally expected to be held in August being postponed.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times