Food truck group says D.C. rules would block many vendors from downtown area

March 27, 2013

The latest proposed vending regulations determining how and where food trucks can operate in the District could make much of the central downtown business area off-limits to unlucky operators, according to the results of a recent sidewalk survey by the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington.

The association spent hundreds of man-hours measuring the sidewalks in the Central Business District, the high-density area where food trucks sell lunch to hungry workers, to find out which parking spots would be legal under the proposed regulations. It found that the vast majority would be prohibited to vendors who did not secure a spot through the proposed lottery system for prime, extended-hour locations.

The latest sidewalk survey comes just weeks after city officials proposed “mobile roadway vending” zones in the most popular truck locations, such as Farragut Square and Metro Center. The zones were offered as a way to alleviate congestion and prevent fights among vendors for prime parking spots.

The city has not determined how many trucks would be allowed in each zone, but the proposed regulations stipulate a minimum of three, all selected via a monthly lottery system.

What’s more, the proposed zones would prevent other trucks from parking within 500 feet of the specialty vending areas. Those trucks that do not win a lottery spot would be allowed to operate in other parts of the city as long as they respect the 500-foot buffer and park in a location with at least 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk next to it.

Trucks that violate these rules could face fines between $1,000 and $2,000.

The Food Truck Association had to make some assumptions in carrying out the latest sidewalk survey. It had to assume where the mobile roadway vending zones would be, how many trucks would be allowed in each and how many zones the city would establish.

Based on the proposed regulations — and the association’s assumptions — about 25 strips of public space would be available to food trucks in the Central Business District, said Doug Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound DC truck and chairman of the Food Truck Association. A “couple hundred” spaces would be off-limits, he said.

Povich said most trucks would be limited to the mobile roadway vending zones in the Central Business District. “You’ve effectively taken away our ability to roam and meet demand,” he said. “You’ve effectively turned us into stationary roadway vendors.”

A sidewalk survey conducted in the fall by the association indicated that eight of the 10 most popular vending locations would have been prohibited under an earlier draft of the proposed regulations.

Povich said that if the D.C. Council passes the regulations as proposed, food trucks will go out of business or move to more friendly jurisdictions. One food truck operator, Basil Thyme, has already decided to call it quits based in part on the proposed vending regulations.

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said the city has no intention of killing off the food truck industry or limiting choices in the District. He pointed to the city’s plan to allow new-generation food trucks to operate on the Mall and to create a vending zone on the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

“What we’re trying to do is balance the interests of everybody involved,” Ribeiro said. “It is not as bleak as food trucks want to make it out to be.”

Neither the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District nor the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, organizations that have argued for tighter restrictions on food trucks, could be reached for comment.

An official with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the city does not intend to create all the mobile roadway vending zones at once. Instead, it will start with a few zones in the more popular locations “and see how they are working.”

The Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, chaired by council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the regulations at 11 a.m. April 30 in the Wilson Building. Orange said he has met with both food truck and brick-and-mortar restaurant owners but has not formed an opinion on the regulations. He does, however, expect to move the proposal to the council for a vote.

The Food Truck Association said it plans to lobby against the proposed regulations, given that the D.C. Council cannot amend the rules, only vote for or against them. “We have no choice, really, but to ask our followers and ask the city council to disapprove these regulations,” Povich said.

If the regulations are voted down or not acted upon, food trucks would continue to operate under the decades-old “ice cream truck” rule, which requires mobile vendors to have a line of customers waiting. If they don’t, trucks are required to move from the parking spot.

“Sad as that is,” Povich said, “ that would be the case.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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