The Food Truck Dilemma

I face a dilemma when I consider the latest proposal for a pilot program to allow food trucks to occupy metered parking spaces in a few limited areas of downtown.  I am a long-time downtown resident and booster.  I have worked in many ways over the years to advance downtown interests, previously in both my professional and civic life and now also as a council member.  So the idea of food trucks downtown immediately appealed to me because I see it as a likely way to add liveliness and diversity to downtown, which would benefit downtown and larger community interests.  Yet I have concerns I would like to see resolved before any pilot program gets initiated.

My biggest concern is about the overall effect of the proposed pilot program on downtown. The downtown area has made fairly steady progress toward recovery since the almost total loss of its retail base during the 1960s and early 1970s.  During that time city government has made a number of efforts to sustain and accelerate that recovery, including the creation of the Downtown Development Authority and support for the Downtown Lexington Corporation.  The rationale for those efforts has been that downtown is the heart of our community, and that a vibrant downtown is essential for our continued economic health.  During that time a number of entrepreneurs have invested their time and financial resources in a variety of enterprises that have contributed to that recovery. They are to be commended for their willingness to take a risk and for their tenacity. We are now at the point where people no longer wonder whether downtown will survive, and many comment on its strength and vitality.

All that is to the good, and the food truck proposal aims to add to that vitality.  But many people who have invested in downtown will tell you that we are still in a fragile position, and that downtown businesses still face challenging conditions. The present proposal would take an existing public resource, metered parking spaces on public streets, and grant a right to a class of business to occupy parking spaces in designated areas for a commercial purpose.

Our city initiated its system of metered parking to assure that street parking would be available for people who want to come downtown for business or pleasure.  People who have invested in downtown businesses have done so with the understanding that street parking would be available for their clientele.  This proposal, by reducing the number of spaces available to the public, would change that condition.

Food trucks already have the right to operate on private property in Lexington, and many have been successful in doing so, with a few successful enough to be expanding their operations to include opening bricks-and-mortar restaurants. Some other cities have thriving food truck scenes without allocating public parking for them.  Austin, for example, has something like five hundred food trucks, all of which operate on private property, most often in clusters.

The larger question of whether food trucks in metered parking would enhance the overall development and vitality of downtown has no easy answer.  Since initiating a pilot program is one way to get data to help answer that question, I would like to be able to support a pilot program.  Here are some areas that I believe need to be addressed to strengthen the present proposal.

Criteria for Designating Areas: Throughout the work on developing this proposal the  designation of which metered spaces should allow food trucks has changed with successive drafts.  In thinking about ways I might be able to support the proposal, I proposed additional areas, and I also moved, unsuccessfully, to remove one proposed area.  The Parking Authority, which has the responsibility to regulate the use of metered spaces, deleted one proposed area in its earlier deliberations.  At its special called meeting on May 29 the Parking Authority, citing a number of uncertainties, decided to postpone until their June 13 meeting any final decision about which areas to designate.  By the time of that meeting they plan to develop a set of clear criteria and a rationale by which they can review their decisions to this point and make final decisions about areas to be included in the pilot program. This is a move toward needed clarity and transparency, and should be helpful to everyone concerned about this issue.

Time Limits: The Parking Authority also postponed a final decision about whether the existing rule that no vehicle can occupy a space for more than two hours will apply to food trucks or be modified to allow them to occupy a space for up to four hours.  They will also consider at that time whether other restrictions are needed regarding how frequently one truck can occupy spaces within a designated area.

Enforcement: Two issues remain unclear regarding enforcement.  The first is whether the Parking Authority’s present system for enforcement for vehicles during regular meter hours needs to be modified to meet this new proposed use. The second is how enforcement will be handled after regular meter hours.

Evaluation:  The packet provided council members prior to the proposed ordinance being given First Reading included a set of criteria for evaluating the pilot program at the end of six months. The substance of this set of criteria has had little discussion, and it was not incorporated into the actual ordinance, where it would need to be placed for it to be fully effective as a guide for determining the overall merits of the pilot program.

I appreciate the hard work so many people have devoted to developing the current proposal, and I understand that after literally years of working on this issue people are ready to see something happen.  But the proposal before council for a pilot program for downtown is relatively new in its present form.  It was developed after council’s recent unanimous approval of a set of changes to ordinances that make it easier in general for food trucks to operate. The many questions that remain about the details of the pilot program and the way it would be implemented and evaluated indicate that the proposal requires further work.

Though this proposal is clearly a pilot, and not necessarily the final word, I would like to see council get it as right as possible before moving it forward.  I hope to see the proposal modified in such a way that I could add my support for it.

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