Raleigh Report

Raleigh council delays action on allowing food trucks on some downtown streets

Caroline Williams takes order from the Urban Street Grill Korean BBQ food truck during the Food Truck Rodeo on October 11, 2013, in downtown Raleigh.
Caroline Williams takes order from the Urban Street Grill Korean BBQ food truck during the Food Truck Rodeo on October 11, 2013, in downtown Raleigh. jhknight@newsobserver.com

City leaders, still fretting that more food trucks downtown would create too much noise for residents, put off until February action on a plan to let the businesses cater to diners at curbside during lunch hours in select parts of town.

The mobile food vendors, a growing industry nationally with many fans in Raleigh, are allowed to set up on private property but can’t operate on public roads unless part of a special event such as downtown celebrations.

More than 1,000 people recently petitioned the city to loosen its food truck rules, and a council committee last month proposed a six-month pilot program allowing vendors to have some street parking.

But Tuesday’s delay was another instance in which the City Council seems to have had difficulty making a firm decision on a major change in downtown rules.

Members have been trying to balance the wants and needs of the people who enjoy working, shopping and dining downtown with the growing numbers of people who live there. It’s been a challenge since August, when, in another attempt to limit nightlife noise, the council approved sidewalk dining restrictions – both on hours and numbers of people – that it later loosened after an outcry from downtown businesses.

Allowing the food trucks more access to downtown could create more noise at a time when many residents are already upset with the rowdiness of nightlife crowds, councilwoman Kay Crowder said.

The council instructed the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to reach out to more residents in the area to get more information. A DRA survey conducted earlier this year didn’t gather enough feedback, she said.

“This might be a little bit rushed,” Crowder said.

No residents spoke in opposition to the program during Tuesday night’s public hearing. But about 15 food truck advocates attended, and four of them spoke. Some were frustrated by the council’s decision.

“They’ve reached out to enough people,” said Deb Keller, who operates the local Cousins Maine Lobster food truck.

“It’s really sad. These guys have done a tremendous amount of work,” Keller said, referring to food truck owners who offered input for months as city leaders crafted the proposal.

The pilot program would allow food trucks to operate in city-selected downtown parking spots between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on days when Raleigh hosts its monthly First Friday street fair.

Food trucks that pay a participation fee would be entered into a monthly lottery. Selected trucks would be allowed to park in one of five areas downtown:

▪ South State Street, between New Bern Avenue and Hargett Street.

▪ Polk Street, between Blount and Wilmington.

▪ Hargett Street, between South Blount and South Person streets.

▪ Bloodworth Street between East Martin and East Davie streets.

▪ The Warehouse district.

The Warehouse district is roughly defined by Hargett, West, Davie and Dawson streets. Participating trucks would have to pay associated parking fees for their spaces and stay at least 100 feet from traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.

They also would be prohibited from erecting chairs, free-standing signs or music amplifiers and from using city waste bins to dispose of in-truck trash. Similar restrictions for sidewalk dining have created controversies on the council in recent months.

Research by Raleigh city staff members shows that several U.S. cities allow food trucks to operate curbside on public streets, albeit with varying restrictions.

Atlanta allows food trucks to operate in 18 public locations but requires them to stay 200 feet away from restaurants. Minneapolis allows food trucks to park in bus lanes if given approval from city staff, as well as 11 spots near the Nicollet Mall downtown. Washington, D.C., conducts a monthly lottery for 95 spots.

Many operators are nervous about the Raleigh’s proposed lottery system and hope to resolve some concerns before February, said Susan Tower, owner of the Deli-icious food truck.

“What happens if you pay (the participation fee), but don’t get picked or have a scheduling conflict on the days you’re picked?” Tower said after the meeting.

Trucks might also benefit financially if the council waits until February or March to approve a six-month pilot program, she said.

If Raleigh leaders had approved the program Tuesday, it would have started in January and ended in June. If they approve it later this winter, the program will include all of the good-weather months.

“Then we might actually make some money,” Tower said.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht