Chill, Portland: The downtown food carts are not about to close

Michael Andersen
Feb 8, 2016 · 4 min read

A lot of people are understandably upset about an article on Food Carts Portland, which is based on an article in The Oregonian, which says that there’s a “plan” (also “vision” and “proposal”) to put skyscrapers on a bunch of downtown parking lots, including some parking lots that have food carts around their edges.

I’ll get back to the article in a minute but first let’s talk briefly about food carts.

It’s 100 percent legit to be worried about our food carts’ long-term future. Food carts are fantastic and a documented force behind downtown Portland’s current prosperity. And they can’t last forever in their current locations.

That’s because they only turn a profit in a very specific and unusual situation: when you have a neighborhood with lots of foot traffic but relatively low property values.

Portland circa 2010, which was starting to claw back from a really bad economic decade, was a perfect example of this. We should be proud of the fact that when this moment came, our city didn’t use pointless laws to get in the way of food carts, the way some other cities have. We turned a bunch of boring parking spaces into a nationally celebrated culinary destination. That was a totally awesome idea.

That was not an idea that’s going to go away. That was a permanent discovery.

What will go away, eventually, is the fact that property values on these particular high-foot-traffic spots are fairly low. These are parking lots in the middle of fucking downtown. I and almost everybody I know would love to work in or near downtown Portland if their employers could afford it. Downtown Portland is in demand, and there’s only one place they’re making more of it: the sky.

There are still some other places in Portland that have decent foot traffic but fairly low property values. Parking lots in areas with decent sidewalks, transit and quantity of apartments are places to start. As my friend Tony pointed out, all the parking spaces that line the Park Blocks would be perfect for this.

Let’s get spots like those wired for food carts stat. Hell, maybe let’s set up public loan programs to help property owners do it.

To his credit, Brett Burmeister at Food Carts Portland isn’t saying “let’s create Portland Food Cart Refuges that can never be used for anything except $8.50 sandwiches and $2 bottles of Izze.” (That’d be a great way to stop any landowner from ever creating another food cart pod.) He’s saying the city should start letting food carts “move about in and out of the city center, park and serve their patrons.”

Other folks are putting their hopes on setting aside publicly supported foodie spaces like the proposed James Beard Public Market. That’s probably an OK idea; it’s similar to what Vancouver BC did in 2010 when they got food cart envy but discovered that their land was too expensive to make Portland-style private food cart pods work.

But whatever your scheme is for preserving Portland food carts in general — and I’m very much for it! — the other thing to know about this story is that these particular parking lots are probably quite a long time from developing.

If you read The Oregonian’s piece on this fairly carefully, something becomes clear: this “plan” by the property-owning Goodman family would cost $1.5 billion that no one involved has currently acquired.

Here’s the crucial paragraph:

None of the Ankeny Blocks property is for sale, the Goodmans said. They don’t consider themselves developers, either. The family tends to enter into long-term land lease agreements with developers and investors once an agreement for a project is reached. They say the market will dictate the development timeline for the Ankeny Blocks, but that they are eager to get started.

In other words, the people who own these parking lots are announcing “We have successfully lobbied the city to let us build really tall buildings on our property. If you approach us with gobs of money and no risk to us, we will not turn you away. Meanwhile, it’s not like we’re taking out any loans ourselves.”

Admittedly, this is a pretty good way to eventually make gobs of money. As I understand it, that’s more or less what is currently working for Ashforth Pacific, the company that bought a bunch of Lloyd District parking lots in the 90s.

But the following things seem to be missing from this plan as described:

  • Actual architectural work
  • A timeline
  • A deadline
  • Anyone willing to write a check to make this happen

The Oregonian’s article was newsworthy, but it was also in some ways a big classified ad dressed up as a news story.

“Space for rent.”

I’m not looking forward to the day the downtown food cart pods pack up and roll elsewhere. We can (and, I think, should) be taking action now to make sure they have somewhere to roll.

But unless some rich people respond to this classified ad right away, cart owners will probably be paying the Goodmans rent for years to come.

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