CITY HALL — Like your gourmet nosh with a side of napkins rather than a tablecloth?
The Planning Commission signaled its intent Wednesday to take up off-street food truck lots at its Aug. 22 meeting, this time with the aim to bring the sometimes-controversial lunch and dinner wagons fully into the city’s regulatory fold.
As proposed by city officials, the ordinance would allow food trucks on private property on two of Santa Monica’s commercial corridors, along Main Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, and some adjacent parking lots between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. no more than three days a week.
The lots would have to provide at least two car parking spaces and 10 bicycle parking spaces per participating truck, and make sure that restrooms, trash and seating are available for hungry patrons.
That would preserve the popular food truck lot hosted many Tuesdays by the California Heritage Museum on Main Street as a fundraiser, and a new “Hump Day” lot at 14th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard that celebrated its second week of operation on the eve of the commission’s vote.
Matt Geller, president of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendor’s Association, applauded the effort, calling Santa Monica a “model city” for its treatment of food trucks.
“(Principal Planner) Paul Foley was very thoughtful with how he went about this,” Geller said. Foley has been one of the city officials most actively involved in developing the new regulations which, if approved, would take food truck lots out of the gray area in which they’ve existed since 2010.
Food trucks burst onto the scene in Santa Monica two years ago at the very site that the Hump Day lot now occupies.
Steve Taub, who owns the physical property, managed to operate a bevy of food trucks there for a single day before city officials moved in to shut it down, citing a lack of permits.
A quirk of state law means that food trucks that stay on the street don’t need special permits to operate, just a license to run a business in Santa Monica and a decent understanding of local parking rules.
That’s because the trucks are considered vehicles, and City Hall can’t tell them where they can and cannot park unless they constitute a threat to public safety.
Take them onto private property, however, and local codes reign once again. City officials had to step in to create a framework that would deal with the lots appropriately.
The Tuesday and Wednesday events have operated under temporary use permits, a regulatory run-around allowed by City Hall while officials crafted the more permanent policy, which will debut at the Planning Commission next week.
The California Heritage Museum mobilized residents to reach out to the Planning Commission in support of the food truck night, which Geller estimates has raised nearly $102,000 for the museum since it began the fundraising event nearly two years ago.
Though most of the outreach to the commission was in support of the regulation, several brick-and-mortar establishments on Main Street called on commissioners to take another look.
Some businesses on Main Street believe their Tuesday night traffic has taken a hit since the food truck lot took up residence at the museum. That particularly irks them because, unlike brick-and-mortar businesses, food trucks don’t have to pay some fees and property taxes that cut into a restaurant’s bottom line.
Manhar Patel, who has operated Dhaba Cuisine of India since 1972, urged commissioners to consider the dark side of food trucks, like their propensity to absorb parking, burn fossil fuels and avoid merchant fees and taxes.
“Please take all of this into consideration before you promote another fad of fast food that is mostly unhealthy food only now considered cheap and cool,” Patel wrote.
Those kinds of protests are about “thumb in the eye” impacts rather than any substantive hurt that the trucks are doing to regular businesses, Geller said.
“There are always going to be naysayers. They just don’t want it or just don’t like it. But I think Santa Monica is good about listening to their constituents,” he said.
Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer, at least, isn’t sold one way or another.
“It’s a tricky issue,” Winterer said. Food trucks are fun, and they enliven Main Street, but beyond the concerns of some merchants, there are other policy issues to consider.
The new proposal would make authorizing a food truck lot an administrative act through a performance standards permit. The designation travels with the property, however, which concerns Winterer.
“We have to really think about all of the possibilities,” he said.
This isn’t City Hall’s first attempt to regulate food trucks, just the first time it’s tackled the off-street gatherings.
In November 2011, the City Council voted to restrict food trucks parked outside popular bars on a section of Main Street after police played a video that showed crowds of people lining up to eat at the mobile establishments after last call.
Patrons blocked sideways and jaywalked across the street in an attempt to satisfy their early morning munchies. As a result, food trucks were banned between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Main Street between Ocean Park Boulevard and Marine Street.
According to an information item released Thursday, city officials want to extend that restriction a bit further to the southern city limit.