Food trucks encounter suspicion, but will get a trial run in Alexandria for 16 months

Food trucks will get an 16-month tryout in the parks, parking lots, schools and driveways of Alexandria, the City Council decided Saturday, but they won’t be allowed to sell their delectables from the curbsides just yet.

The council, in a 4-2 vote, decided to allow a trial period that would start July 1 and last through October 2015 for the popular rolling restaurants. Vendors could set up at local schools, with the principal’s permission, at parks and special events with the approval of the city and at private functions at the invitation of the property owner.

The decision to allow only off-street food truck sales was a compromise submitted by the city staff late Friday, after council members asked for more options. The proposal that was advertised would have allowed food trucks to sell on King Street in Old Town, along Mount Vernon Avenue in Delray and Arlandria, in the Eisenhower/Carlyle area and all along Washington Street, the city’s portion of the George Washington Parkway.

Most of the 50 people who came to testify on the matter were unaware of the change until it was announced from the dais, and although many agreed with the compromise, its last-minute nature did not sit well with those ready to argue against allowing food trucks in historic districts, along congested streets or in curbside competition with rent-paying restaurants.

Four and a half hours of public comment persuaded council member Paul Smedberg to attempt to delay action on the matter until fall. Smedberg, a food truck supporter, said there remained too many unanswered questions about how the food trucks would be administered and how success or failure would be measured. The delay, he argued, would allow a citizens’ task force that had worked on the issue for the past year to complete its report.

But his attempt failed, on a 4-2 vote that included vice mayor Allison Silberberg on his side. Mayor William D. Euille was absent. Both Smedberg and Silberberg voted no on the final vote.

Despite the wild popularity of food trucks in the District, Arlington County and elsewhere around the country, the Alexandrians who spoke up Saturday displayed a strong streak of not-in-my-historic-back-yard-ism.

“Woefully inappropriate,” said resident Poul Hertel, to allow food trucks in historic districts or along the GW Parkway.

“Most businesses have to apply to change the color of their signs,” said resident Bob Wood, “while every food truck I see competes to look more garish or ‘hip.’”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against modernity,” said Ursula Witte, who went on to call food trucks “nauseating, ugly eyesores” and a public health problem. “I’d rather starve” than buy dinner from one, she said.

John Jarecki, owner of the Light Horse restaurant, said 93 eateries line King Street’s roughly 20 blocks between the river and the Metro station, while Disneyland has 89 and Georgetown between 65 and 70. “We are way, way over-saturated,” he said. “Five restaurants are currently for sale and several more on the verge.”

A handful of food truck owners and supporters spoke, including Doug Povich, chairman of the DMV Food Truck Association, who said vendors are willing to work with the city and abide by time restrictions and licensing requirements the city sets up. The trucks, city officials noted, would have to meet the same health and safety codes as brick-and-mortar restaurants. The fees each will have to pay the city and state for off-street sales are about $600 per year.

Working off-street locations is “not our preference,” Povich said, because “to develop a robust market you need on-street and off-street sites... Our perspective is you should be able to enter a market subject to responsible licensing.”

Food trucks already serve the 6,000 federal employees and contractors at the Defense Department’s Mark Center parking lots in Alexandria’s west end. One member of the citizens’ task force that investigated how the city should handle food trucks said she was “absolutely opposed” to them until she began learning more, and took a field trip to downtown Washington where the task force members “ate from six or seven trucks.”

The member, Lynn Bostain, invited those who are opposed to attend a food truck “rodeo” June 6 in the parking lot of the massive Southern Towers apartment complex at Seminary Road and I-395.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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