Food trucks, road races among ‘growing pains’ for downtown Raleigh

ccampbell@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

— The first season of downtown Raleigh food truck rodeos wrapped up Sunday, but the debate over where the mobile vendors belong in downtown – among other growth-related issues – is just beginning.

More than 1,500 people have signed a petition calling for looser restrictions on the trucks, which are a rare sight downtown outside special events. Petition organizers want the Raleigh City Council to consider creating food truck “zones” at several spots in the Warehouse District, which has few restaurants to feed workers and visitors.

Food trucks are among several downtown issues the council will tackle in the coming months. City leaders also will revisit the growing number of road races that shut down streets and create other hassles. And next month, they’ll get recommendations on possible locations for feeding the homeless and needy following efforts this summer to push the handouts out of the hot Moore Square area.

Each topic requires a balancing act between diverse groups, but it’s a challenge the city council is happy to accept. The issues all stem from downtown’s rapid transformation from a sleepy office district to Raleigh’s epicenter of special events and development.

“We are experiencing these growing pains, and we’re trying to find a balance,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who will oversee many of the debates as chair of the law and public safety committee. “It’s like we’re a victim of our own success in a way, and this has gotten ahead of us. ... There was a time that we didn’t have a lot of events downtown.”

Just eight years ago, the old Fayetteville Street pedestrian mall was a ghost town on weekends. But on Sunday, thousands of people filled the street from the state Capitol to City Plaza, standing in line for hours to grab a bite from one of 60 food trucks.

The event was the fourth rodeo this year, but some were experiencing the food truck craze for the first time. While downtown Durham has food trucks nearly every day, Raleigh’s rules tend to push the trucks to office parks and breweries away from the city center.

Larry Sanders of Raleigh says he works downtown and would like to visit the trucks more often, though he understands the need for restrictions. “Having a zone set up seems like it makes sense,” he said while standing in a 50-person line for the Chirba Chirba dumpling truck.

That’s the idea petition organizer Logan King, owner of Raleigh Screen Print, plans to bring to the city council this fall. He’s taken the model from Portland and envisions three food truck zones along side streets in the Warehouse District. One could be near the Red Hat Amphitheater to serve concert crowds, while others might be next to the Contemporary Art Museum and the new headquarters of technology company Citrix.

“It’s going to change a lot down here once Citrix is here,” King said. “Most of their offices have food trucks there Monday through Friday. I want to make sure that’s not something they miss when they come down here.”

David Diaz, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said Raleigh’s current food truck rules – no trucks parked on the street or within 100 feet of a restaurant – make sense. But he’s interested in opening up sleepier areas of downtown where shops and art galleries could benefit from having food available.

“If there’s not much activity there, we should find a way to modify our food truck approach to benefit from the activity a food truck can provide,” he said.

Races and roadblocks

Raleigh leaders also will balance the benefits of road races with the hassles of street closures. Runners and spectators are generally a boon to businesses, but as the city tops 100 races per year, drivers and neighbors are increasingly fed up with weekend morning roadblocks.

The tensions hit a new level last month when the Color Run prompted Oakwood residents’ cars to get towed, while others complained that the colorful starch thrown at runners ended up on their homes.

While new rules and a 100-event annual cap was approved earlier this year, the road race policy will now get another look from city council. Baldwin says city staff members should oversee the permit process, which is currently handled by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. That could improve coordination and communication surrounding the events, she said.

Diaz said he’s happy to give up that role. “We felt that we had all of the responsibility and none of the authority” to manage city employees, he said.

Feeding the hungry

And while downtown is drawing runners and food truck fans, it’s still home to some of Raleigh’s neediest residents, which brings multiple groups to Moore Square each weekend to hand out food.

The charities say they haven’t received the same welcome that road races and festivals get – instead, they reported being threatened with arrest in August for violating city ordinances governing food distribution. That rule hadn’t been enforced for years, but now future development plans are creating pressure to clean up the park.

The charities, along with residents and business owners, will meet once more on Oct. 22 to finalize recommendations to the city council. Many of them have suggested that the city should provide the alternative site if Moore Square isn’t an option.

Baldwin and Councilman John Odom say they’ll likely budget funds toward a solution. “I’m willing to put some money in that and make that happen,” Odom said, adding that he doesn’t think the park is the right place for charity work. “The square is important if we’re going to have redevelopment downtown to continue.”

And while liability issues have been cited as a reason to kick charities off city property, Councilman Russ Stephenson said the council should be able to resolve that concern – especially given the success of the food truck rodeos.

“It just seems to me that if we can shut down Fayetteville Street on a regular basis for events that involve feeding people, we can probably shut down a parking lot” to feed the hungry, he said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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