What a difference two years makes. Prior to 2011, it was illegal for a food truck in Seattle to sell a sandwich from a public parking space. That was the year the city overhauled its street food ordinances, hoping to make life easier for local entrepreneurs and, let’s face it, keep up with Portland. Now Seattle is using these same roving purveyors of lumpia and hot dogs as a civic improvement tool in two pockets of downtown. 

Generally food truck owners find a curbside spot with high visibility and lots of pedestrians—like, say, any intersection on the Amazon campus—then apply to the city for a permit to operate there. Now the Seattle Department of Transportation is working in reverse. In July it began actively recruiting trucks to do business at Westlake Park and Alaskan Way at the Pike Street Hillclimb, areas where SDOT staff say they want to combat “negative activity”—which is public safety–speak for things like loitering, drug dealing, and the sort of dubious goings-on that should be familiar to anyone who has walked the Westlake stretch of Pine Street.

“We’re adding positive activity,” says SDOT public space program manager Jennifer Wieland of food trucks’ pedestrian--summoning, sandwich-dispensing presence, “and encouraging some of that negative activity to move away, or at least get balanced out.”

For food vendors, setting up shop in these locations means not stressing over finding a street that meets myriad requirements, submitting a labor-intensive site plan, and paying $344 for an on-site staff review. (They do still need permits.) As of mid-August carts and trucks were populating these two spots; each site only holds one or two vendors at a time, but the city wants new trucks to rotate in each day. And if street food is effective in changing the character of challenged intersections, SDOT wants to use it in other challenging parts of town. Seattle Parks and Recreation is also planning a weekly Friday-night food truck pod in Occidental Park next year to give Pioneer Square’s bar crowds a deep-fried alternative to drunken rowdiness. Between food trucks and Hempfest Doritos, Seattle seems to be finding highly savory ways to combat unsavory activity.

 

Published: October 2013