CITY HALL — Planning commissioners took a protectionist stance for brick-and-mortar restaurants Wednesday night by approving restrictive regulations for off-street food truck lots that business owners say unfairly damage their bottom lines.
In a 5-2 decision, commissioners approved new standards that allowed one off-street food truck lot one day per week on Main Street between the hours of 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. and up to four lots three days per week on Santa Monica, Lincoln or Pico boulevards between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.
The move kept the status quo on Main Street, which has seen major opposition from businesses to an existing lot operating on Tuesdays as a fundraiser for the California Heritage Museum.
It greatly expanded options currently available along the other boulevards, although commissioners stopped far short of the broader staff recommendation to allow food truck lots up to three nights a week between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. all around, provided that they met certain conditions regarding space and facilities.
Appropriate lots would have to have 15,000 square feet of space, two off-street parking spaces per food truck and 10 bicycle spaces as well as one restroom per gender and 200 square feet of seating area.
Main Street’s concerns dominated the night despite the fact that there’s an operating food truck lot that recently opened on Santa Monica Boulevard at 14th Street on Wednesdays.
Commissioners found themselves between a rock and a hard place as they sought to strike a balance between the community desire for off-street truck lots, the Main Street business community that cried poverty and the museum, which has had difficulty paying its employees and is kept afloat in part by its relationship with the food truck lot.
“I’m supportive of brick-and-mortar businesses,” said Planning Commissioner Jim Ries. “I think it’s pretty unfair … I would like to vote against this straight out, but at the same time I hear a number of $104,000 in fundraising done for the museum.”
Food trucks fall into a strange category for cities. On public streets, they cannot be regulated except for normal parking standards and for public safety. On private property, however, officials can place additional restrictions on where and how they do business.
For the past two years, the lot that operates on Tuesday nights in front of the museum has operated within a gray area in the code called a temporary use permit, which allowed city officials to study it and its impacts.
In that time, it’s formed a following, aided in part by a symbiotic relationship with the Victorian, which serves beer and wine to food truck patrons at its Basement Tavern.
“On the lawn kids are playing and people are running around. Families start the evening, and then professionals coming off of work, getting a drink, and then the people I call hipsters with dogs,” said Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendor’s Association, describing the festive atmosphere of the event.
Business owners, however, accuse the crowds of taking up vital parking spaces with no intention of shopping on the street, blocking paying customers from their stores and restaurants.
It makes it difficult for brick-and-mortars, which have higher base costs than a food truck, to compete against the mobile vendors.
Diane Jackson, the owner of contemporary craft store Mindful Nest, said she had to let one of her employees go. The woman only worked on Tuesdays, and there wasn’t enough action to keep her, Jackson said.
“I don’t know what to say except that it’s hurting all of our businesses,” she told commissioners.
They also feel that the truck lot was sold to them using false pretenses.
When City Hall first allowed the lot, it was going to be temporary, and there was no mention of alcohol or seating, said Anthony Schmitt, chair of the Main Street Business Improvement Association.
“I was the one who said, ‘save yourself,’ but I had no idea that saying (that) the word ‘temporary’ would disappear,” Schmitt said, referring to the California Heritage Museum, a staunch supporter of the trucks.
Despite the fact that much of the conversation focused on the lot at the museum, there’s no guarantee that space will receive the one permit allowed on Main Street under the commissioners’ recommendation although, Geller said, it will be the first in line.
Some planning commissioners took issue with the way city officials proposed to permit the trucks by using a “performance standards permit.” The permits, also called PSPs, are permanent, meaning that a property awarded a permit to have a food truck lot may always have one.
Commissioner Ted Winterer balked at the thought of giving permanent status to a new creation, despite his support of the truck lot in general.
“I can’t support anything that’s going to be on a permanent basis,” he said.
Temporary permitting that must be renewed once or twice a year didn’t strike favor with Deputy City Attorney Yibin Shen.
“Our office is fairly comfortable that California law does not like renewing use permits,” Shen said, while admitting that some cities do offer the option.
With that in mind, commissioners added a provision to their recommendation that the City Council pursue a temporary option, if possible.
That didn’t receive a lot of love from Geller, who disliked the idea of a successful lot living in fear of getting the rug yanked out from under it every six or 12 months.
Although he preferred the staff recommendation, Geller took a pragmatic view.
“If that’s what we’ve got, we’ll make things work,” he said.