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The City of Wilsonville is considering adopting code to address mobile food units

PMG PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - The Clackamas Community College campus in Wilsonville recently added rotating food carts. Now the City is considering new policies for the carts.

If one were to stroll through the Clackamas Community College campus in Wilsonville in the late afternoon or early evening, they might spot hungry college students purchasing burgers or Korean tacos from a food cart stationed next to the school's entrance.

The food carts, which opened last week and are available 3-7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, add to what is currently a fairly sparse food truck scene in Wilsonville. However, Oregon Mobile Food Association President Leah Tucker has seen the industry trickle into the suburbs in recent years and thinks Wilsonville could become another cart haven in the future — if it adopts policies that are amenable to the industry.

"We see a lot of growth in Wilsonville," Tucker said. "I don't know if you guys are that far off from seeing a potential pod situation."

CCC adds trucks

The impetus for bringing the food carts to the CCC Wilsonville campus originated in Oregon City, which used to ban food trucks entirely. After Oregon City lifted the ban, Tucker talked to administrators about bringing the trucks to the CCC campus in Oregon City. CCC was receptive to the idea and decided to expand the initiative to its other campuses in Wilsonville and Milwaukie.

"We did a short trial run after preliminary approval from the city and talked about branching out to other campuses and seeing how it would go for fall term for all campuses. So far it's gone great," Tucker said.

CCC Public Information Officer Lori Hall said the CCC Wilsonville campus does not have food other than salads, sandwiches and snacks available in vending machines while the Oregon City campus didn't provide food during the evening.

"This is another way to get fresh, hot food for our students," Hall said.

Food trucks stationed at the Wilsonville location in the first week of operation included Koi Fusion (Korean), Smak Dab's (burgers) and a barbecue truck called The Coup. The carts rotate and are largely managed through the StreetFoodFinder application.

Hall also said the college would consider increasing the frequency of food carts on the campuses, but wanted to gauge the popularity level first. And she encouraged the Wilsonville community to use them as well.

"We would love to have people from the community visit the food trucks," she said.

City plans for food carts

According to the City business licensing department, the only food carts in Wilsonville other than the CCC carts, are Chick-fil-A (once a week in the Ace Hardware parking lot), Rico's Tacos (travels), Don Pepe (travels), RoyalScotSE (Coffee Cart in Villebois) and The PuPu Shack (travels).

Tucker said that the reason food carts haven't proliferated in Wilsonville as significantly as some other metro-area cities like Happy Valley and Beaverton is that the population isn't as condensed.

"It's really density. Wilsonville has a lot of people, but they're not on top of each other," she said. "Other cities that have food cart pods, most of them it's a city center and pretty densely bumped up against residential so there's not far for people to travel from the suburbs to the city center. Wilsonville is still growing in that respect."

Council President Kristin Akervall said in an email that the City's plan to redevelop Town Center into a more vibrant, mixed use area could also pave the way for more food carts while Councilor Ben West he would like to see more food carts in town.

Tucker noted that Portland, in particular, is famous for its array of food cart pods, which are a cluster of permanent or semi-permanent food trucks. Wilsonville Planning Manager Daniel Pauly said the City has met with developers who expressed interest in building food cart pods in town, but decided against it.

Pauly surmised that cost is one reason there aren't any pods in Wilsonville. He also said such pods are more onerous to the City than mobile carts because they require connections to City-run facilities like water and sewer.

"There's a lot of considerations there. There's fire and safety concerns, you have the stormwater and sewer concerns," he said. "It's doable. But you also come into the idea that once you start with sewer, water, storm connections, you get into the costs that are similar to a normal (restaurant) structure."

Currently, Wilsonville's code does not directly address food carts. However, Pauly said the City is considering bringing a proposal to adopt a set of code standards for food carts to Wilsonville City Council. He said that might include different rules for mobile food carts and pods.

"More research needs to be done and partnering with other jurisdictions to understand what best practices are for regulating those uses in context in Wilsonville," he said. "Once we have a public discussion like we would for any other planning project, we'll make some recommendations to council."

A changing environment

According to Tucker, food carts grew exponentially in popularity in Portland shortly after the recession because they are cheaper both for developers and consumers. However, she said once the economy improved, some Portland food cart pods were redeveloped.

But the food cart industry has branched out into the suburbs, and Tucker said more food carts have moved away from the pod concept in favor of mobility.

"With any shift in an industry, there are things like what we're seeing at CCC campus, which is a lot of the carts are starting to see the benefit of being in a mobile truck and utilizing rotational spaces and programs to do business rather than sitting in one spot," Tucker said.

She said other local jurisdictions have passed policies like specifying how food cart pod properties need to be managed, the timeframes when food carts can be open, and where they can be located, among other considerations.

"Up until the last couple years, most suburbs allowed the state to manage that. As we've seen growth of this industry, cities are recognizing that maybe they need to figure out how to manage that a little bit better," Tucker said.

Some policies she wouldn't recommend include those that limit how far away food carts can be from a brick-and-mortar restaurant and not allowing them to be stationed next to curbs.

"Every city has different things that end up being restrictive … from fee structures that are astronomical, to location restrictions, to not being able to be in denser population areas," she said.

Tucker has met with Wilsonville planners to discuss future plans and said she would provide them a copy of the code Oregon City adopted.

"Wilsonville is not inundated with mobile food units. … Now is a good time to write code like this to get ahead of it," she said.

Overall, Tucker said food carts can be a boon to the local economy and don't hinder brick-and-mortar restaurants as much as some might believe.

"There are countless papers and studies that show the benefits of mobile food to the community," she said. "The best thing they (cities) can do is make sure the door is open and we can operate safely and relatively easily within their community."

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