City gets Serious About Street Food: New Plan Could Create Zones on Capitol Hill by Summer

Seattle's famed "Marination Mobile"

By jseattle |

Seattle's famed "Marination Mobile"

A plan to jumpstart Seattle’s street food scene is moving forward with new legislation designed to boost local shopping district economies, create “festive, pedestrian-friendly streets” and give entrepreneurs an easier starting point for creating their own food and drink businesses, CHS learned.

We reported last summer that city planners had targeted Capitol Hill as one area to pilot a new streetfood program in the city.

According to Gary Johnson, the Department of Planning and Development coordinator leading the project, the new proposals are being prepared for the Seattle City Council to take up this spring. “We are preparing to transmit legislation to Council (within the next couple of weeks) so the initiative should gain higher visibility soon,” Johnson tells CHS.

The plan lays out three main benefits to the city — and Capitol Hill — of the new street food zones:

The City of Seattle would like to encourage more street food vending in our city, especially in the Center City neighborhoods. Affordable and culturally-diverse street food can improve public safety and street life, increase access to local food, and create new business opportunities.

What are the benefits?

· Economic vitality.  The experience of other cities shows that food vendors attract foot traffic to commercial districts—which means increased sales and a more vibrant retail business overall.[1]  By offering low-cost, culturally-diverse foods for people on the go, they typically complement— rather than compete— with sit-down restaurants and give people more reasons to frequent local shopping districts.

· Festive, pedestrian-friendly streets. Food vendors bring positive activity to the street and add a festive, people-oriented feel that improves public safety.  In many cities, food vendors provide a window into many diverse cultures, introducing people to new foods and to the pleasures of spending time in the public space of the city.

· An entry point to owning your own business.  Food vending can be an ideal first business. For a modest investment, it helps an entrepreneur develop a track record and build loyal clientele. For many immigrant and refugee communities, food vending offers a point of entry to the economy and a way to learn the food service industry.

The urge to streamline Seattle’s permitting process around street food has picked up steam with the proliferation of mobile food trucks and the continued growth of Seattle’s love/envy relationship with Portland, land of delicious food trailers. While few will object to having unique and affordable chow more readily available, there are legitimate concerns around infrastructure details like garbage, sidewalk and curb use and, yes, bathrooms.

We checked in with the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce to get their latest thoughts on the initiative but haven’t yet heard back. Last summer, Michael Wells, then the interim executive director of the Chamber, said, “The Chamber is concerned about the bottom line for our members. There are some restaurants that feel like it would rub against their profits.” We’ll update when we get a chance to talk with Wells now that things have progressed — and he’s no longer “interim.”

More of our questions and answers from DPD’s Johnson about the initiative, below.

What locations will participate in the program?
Johnson: Remember that the initiative affects both sidewalk carts and trucks.  I believe you are mostly interested in trucks, so I’ll focus on that aspect.  Our proposed legislation would empower SDOT to create curbside zones in which a food truck could park and vend to the sidewalk with a street use permit for that location and time.  Should Council support this proposal, we anticipate that SDOT will pilot several (10?) of these zones in commercial zones.  The focus will probably initially be on “Center City” neighborhoods around downtown, including Capitol Hill.  SDOT will observe a set of setbacks in siting a food vehicle zone, including a minimum of 50’ from any food service business, setbacks from bus zones, etc.  A notification process will alert neighbors that the zone is under consideration and will invite comment/input.  We have identified the long Sound Transit light rail station area along Broadway as having good potential as a location.  It is important to note that the Health Dept. requires that food vendors that are operating at a location for more than one hour must provide written permission for restroom access for employees (not customers) within 200’.  This requirement interjects a significant degree of uncertainty related to the viability of any potential food vehicle zone.

How will vendors be chosen?
Johnson: The legislation directs that SDOT will make available street use permits for any food vehicle zones.  If there are more than one applicant, a lottery will be conducted.  Our current proposal is that permits for four hour time blocks would be made available for any zone, in order to make a location available to multiple vendors, either during the day or on different days.  Benefits include providing broader access to vendors but also to provide neighborhoods with a wider variety of street food options.

We know there was some opposition to this from ‘brick and mortar’ restaurants. How have their concerns been met?
Johnson: I think it remains a mixed bag with some supportive and some opposed.  As mentioned, we are proposing a 50’ setback from any food service business.  An important aspect of the initiative is trying to strike the right balance between the legitimate needs and concerns of brick and mortars and the multiple benefits that can be provided by a street food.

What’s the probable timeline for implementation?
Johnson: I anticipate that we will transmit our proposed legislation within the next couple of weeks.  The City Council is likely to take a couple of months considering it.  I hope to have new regulations in place by late spring/early summer.