The language in question from the District's proposed vending regulations sounds innocuous enough: Food trucks may not vend from a parking spot adjacent to an “unobstructed sidewalk” that’s “less than ten feet (10 ft.) wide in the Central Business District.”
But since the proposed regulations were published in October, members of the D.C. Food Truck Association have been trying to determine what those words could mean for their businesses, and what they’ve learned has unnerved them: Eight of the 10 most popular food-truck destinations downtown do not technically comply with the proposed rules as written, according to research done by the association.
Only the Metro Center and L Street NW locations fit the current criteria, notes Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the association and co-owner of the BBQ Bus.
At an October meeting at the District Department of Transportation offices, however, two officials told the gathered food truck owners that DDOT has no intention of prohibiting street vendors from working such popular sites as Farragut Square, Franklin Square and Union Station. Policy Branch Manager Alice Kelly and Matthew Marcou, deputy associate director of the Public Space Regulation Administration, told vendors that DDOT has the ability to waive the rules to create special Mobile Roadway Vending locations, which would allow trucks to sell food for four straight hours on weekdays. Trucks are currently required to move when the parking meter expires after one to two hours.
“It is my objective, it is Alice Kelly’s objective, to establish Mobile Roadway Vending locations in those areas that you are already using, including Farragut [Square], Franklin [Square],” Marcou told vendors. “So I hope that goes some way toward assuaging your concerns. We’re saying that in an open public forum with scores of vendors here.”
But food trucks owners are put off by a still-unknown process that relies on the kindness of bureaucrats to keep their businesses alive.
“I think the question is, why would you put forward regulations that are only successful when you make an exception to the rule?” wonders Ruddell-Tabisola. “This approach just makes no sense. It seems like what they’ve done is cut and paste brick-and-mortar regulations and applied them to food trucks.”
What Ruddell-Tabisola means is that DDOT appears to be taking the regulations that apply to sidewalk cafes, which when “located at street intersections shall provide corner clearance by providing a ten foot (10 ft.) clear space radial to the corner,” according to D.C. rules. The food truck association says DDOT does not seem to understand the difference between semi-fixed sidewalk cafes and mobile vendors, who are “making no permanent changes to the sidewalk,” Ruddell-Tabisola notes.
However DDOT conceived of the proposed rules, in their current form, they potentially threaten the livelihood of food trucks in the lucrative Central Business District, where the majority of vendors work on a daily basis. Over the course of the past month or so, the association measured the sidewalks and catalogued the physical obstacles at 10 of the most popular food-truck sites — Capitol South, Chinatown, L’Enfant Plaza, Union Station, Franklin Square, Farragut Square, L Street NW, Metro Center, George Washington University and Virginia Avenue NW. They compared their findings to the proposed regs and DDOT’s own Public Realm Design Manual, which defines sidewalk obstructions.
Only Metro Center and L Street NW offer sidewalks with 10 feet of unobstructed space, according to the association. Ruddell-Tabisola says food truck owners should not have to rely on the good intentions of public officials to determine their future in the District.
“Policy needs to be clear. If that’s their intent [to keep trucks in popular vending areas], then we need to see that in black and white,” the executive director says.
“I would only trust what I would see in the regulations,” he adds. “Years from now, there will be different players [in government and among food truck operators] . . . . We need to write regulations that are clear and specific so that anybody in our positions can allocate” vending spaces.
“You can’t make policy based on what people’s good intentions are,” Ruddell-Tabisola says. The association, which has more than 50 members, will soon submit its own ideas and comments on the regulations. The group is already asking food truck supporters to petition Mayor Vincent Gray to rewrite the rules.
DDOT indicated during the vendors meeting last month that it was open to altering the proposed regulations to clarify any murky language and unspecific processes. Kelly and Marcou repeatedly told vendors that these were only proposed, not final, regulations. The D.C. Council will have to approve the regulations, whenever they are finalized.
The city is still taking public comments on the regs. Comments are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, and may be sent to Helder Gil, Legislative Affairs Specialist, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at 1100 Fourth St. SW, Room 5164, Washington, D.C. 20024. Comments may be e-mailed to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov.