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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Packed House at Meeting on Food Cart Crackdown

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 5:14 PM

Randy Leonard doesnt like propane-tank missiles.
  • Randy Leonard doesn't like propane-tank missiles.
They filed in, picked up a pair of city handouts, and then sat down with their notebooks and grumbles. One guy, reviewing the papers in his hand, had this to say: "This is bullshit."

He was one of nearly 100 food cart operators who packed a city conference room this afternoon to learn more about Commissioner Randy Leonard's crackdown on illegal porches and decks that have flourished in a pair of food cart pods downtown.

That crackdown was rumored for weeks, an issue first broken by KATU. But it got rolling this month after Leonard announced at city council that he was making the structures—worried about the chances of fire and collapse—a higher priority for the city's building inspectors than checking nuisance houses.

At times, the session grew slightly heated—no surprise given the popularity and passion over the city's food carts. Letters went out last week to landlords at two pods where complaints have been lodged, at SW 4th and Hall and SW 3rd and Washington, and vendors have been worried they might lose their spots.

But aside from the occasional mutters, vendors mostly came with questions. They wanted to know how many hoops they'd need to run through if they wanted to make their structures legal. They asked about details like clearance between the carts, or what kinds of awnings and ramps are permissible without needing a permit.

"This is an unusual meeting," Leonard told the room, noting the city was forgoing fines, typically the first step in any enforcement push. "But normally you don't build a house and then seek a permit and find out if it's okay. We're trying to help you succeed while trying to find out if your structures are legal."

Want more wonky food cart details? Keep reading!

Before the Q&A portion of the afternoon started, officials from the Bureau of Development Services a primer on the city's complaint and enforcement process and then laid out how and why cities have building codes and the various other inspection cart owners would have to endure to get legal.

In Portland, the definition of what's a building—and thus covered by the permit process—is "very broad." In short, It's almost anything that touches the ground. Among the exceptions: the carts themselves, provided they keep the wheels on. Same for small storage sheds and awnings physically connected to a cart. Tents are okay, provided they don't stay up permanently, meaning no more than 180 days a year.

But while officials said operators were welcome to try to get permits for the porches they've already built, some of them incredibly elaborate structures containing benches and tables, they also basically urged them not to bother trying and to tear them down instead. (They have until early January to get legit, but may get more time if they attempt to tackle the permitting process.)

It can cost hundreds of dollars, they said, and not work out in the end. Owners need to show BDS inspectors their carts won't won't collapse under the weight of snow, or in an earthquake or a bad windstorm (that means digging a foundation). Then there's the approval from the fire marshal and possibly other city bureaus, like the Bureau of Transportation, if a cart or its paraphernalia block the sidewalk.

"If you try to permit these, it will be very difficult," says Terry Whitehill, the BDS official who oversees the team that reviews building plans. "It is not an easy thing to do."

Greg Goodman owns City Center Parking and controls the lot hosting the 3rd and Washington pod. He spoke toward the end of the meeting and acknowledged that his staff could have done a better job monitoring his lots before cart operators sunk their hard-won profits into restaurant-like additions. But he also said carts, by definition, are supposed to be noblemobile, no matter how much business they do.

"To a certain extent, you guys are a victim of your own success," he said. "We want to work with you."

Reid Barrett, who slings Asian dumplings at Dump Truck over at 11th and Alder said something to Leonard after the meeting that he acknowledged wouldn't make him very popular. With other vendors, that is.

"I don't think people appreciate the leeway they're getting."

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