Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 2:07 p.m.
Downtown restaurant owners walked away disheartened from a city meeting Tuesday, believing if a city proposal to prohibit food trucks from parking within a city block of existing restaurants is approved in August, the trucks still will be close enough to force some restaurants out of business.
The Recommending Committee of the City Council, whose members are Councilmen Bob Coffin, Ricki Barlow and Stavros Anthony, sometimes considers changes to bills that are later voted upon by the entire council.
Restaurateurs against the proposal on Tuesday filled the smallish room in the City Clerk’s Office on the second floor of City Hall. The committee talked about Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s proposal to create a distance of 150 feet between food trucks and established restaurants. The restaurant operators wanted the distance increased to 800 feet. Instead, two members of the committee – Anthony and Barlow – voted for 300 feet. Coffin wanted 800 feet.
If approved by the City Council, the policy would be reviewed after 12 months, Anthony said. The council is scheduled to take up the proposal at its Aug.15 meeting
“It feels like you’re leaning (in support of) the food trucks,” said Camy Silva, who runs El Gaucho cafe, on Third Street between Carson and Bridger avenues. “In 12 months, we’ll be bankrupt.”
Only Coffin appeared to sympathize with the restaurant owners. He made a motion to increase the distance to 800 feet, but Anthony and Barlow wouldn’t agree to that.
Anthony said approving 800 feet, which is about the distance of two city blocks, would be the same as “a statement that we don’t want food truck vendors downtown.”
Barlow thought 800 feet was too much and 150 feet was too little. So he took the mayor’s initial proposal of 150 feet and doubled it to 300 feet.
Before the committee members reached their decision, city staff gave conflicting information about how other cities around the country deal with food trucks.
Repeatedly, Planning Manager Doug Rankin said after extensive research, the greatest distance he found between food trucks and restaurants was 200 feet. Later, however, Rankin said El Paso, Texas, enacted an ordinance enforcing a distance of 1,000 feet.
Coffin talked about the city's hypocrisy: The mayor’s proposal would limit the distance between a food truck and restaurant to just 150 feet, but an existing ordinance doesn’t allow food trucks within 1,000 feet of a concession stand in city parks.
In addition, Coffin said businesses have bought into what the city sold them about downtown, and he doesn’t want to hurt those who believed in the message. With the help of the Downtown Project, an investment project set up by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and others, numerous restaurants are expected to open in and around Fremont Street over the next several months.
“We enticed people to come downtown,” Coffin said, “when they could have gone to the county. … I don’t think anybody is getting rich in a little restaurant downtown.”
Others, including Bar + Bistro owner Wes Isbutt, viewed it as unfair that brick-and-mortar businesses spend tens of thousands on licensing and rehabbing old buildings to set up businesses, only to have food trucks come and “leech” off his customers.
“I don’t understand why the city is (supporting) what I see as unfair competition,” he said.
One man speaking on behalf of a food truck called Curbside Cafe spoke briefly, saying he supported the 150 feet distance. "That will work very well."
Committee members agreed on the rest of the mayor’s bill, which includes a four-hour time limit for food trucks in most areas and prevents them from doing business in a public right-of-way, which mostly would keep them from setting up on the street in front of another business. During special events to which the trucks are invited, however, the distance requirement would not be enacted.