Durable Growth

Urbanism and gatherings of food trucks

Proposed location for The Block

Proposed location for The Block

I attended my first annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism back in 2013.  CNU 21 was held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, a massive and ornate hotel that tried to evoke an earlier and more elegant era of American hostelries.

Thus, I was surprised when the late morning session on first day of the conference ended with the announcement that lunch was available in a parking lot across the street from the hotel.  But all was soon clear.  Every midday for the duration of the conference, a collection of food trucks would assemble in the empty parking lot and we would lunch on a wide range of available cuisines while lounging on the grassy landscape islands.

The pizzas were good, but the star, at least to my taste buds, was the fried calamari.  I’ve never had better calamari than in a parking lot in the high desert near the foot of the Wasatch Range, hundreds of miles from any ocean.  I suspect the key was the paper thin slices of lemons that were fried and served with the calamari.

The convention center for CNU 22 in Buffalo didn’t have a location suitable for lunchtime food trucks, but the closing party was held at a privately-owned public space, Larkin Square, where the dining options were again food trucks.  I enjoyed a falafel while chatting about the finances of urban redevelopment with a Buffalo-area developer.

I didn’t know the plans for the upcoming CNU 23 in Dallas, but certainly expected that food trucks will again play a role.

I had that expectation because urbanism and food trucks make great companions.   Having progressed far from the time when they served sandwiches of processed meat on white bread and lukewarm coffee at construction sites, food trucks today are often near the cutting edge of culinary experiences.

And the mobility of food trucks allows them to serve neighborhoods that are evolving, but aren’t yet at the point where brick-and-mortar restaurateurs are willing to risk their savings on leasehold improvements.

Food truck in Petaluma

Food truck in Petaluma

Plus, food trucks can provide an ever-changing range of sometimes exotic culinary experiences, an important factor in neighborhoods that position themselves as trendy.

With the food truck culture taking root, the next step in its evolution has become semi-permanent locations where food trucks can rotate in and out, serving people who dine at communal tables and creating a community among the patrons.

In San Francisco, SoMa Streat Food Park was among the first to try to food truck park concept and found great success on 11th Street under the 101 freeway.

Emboldened by the success, the founder began to consider a second location in the Mission Bay area, between AT&T Park and the UCSF Mission Bay campus.  Mission Bay is a rapidly developing neighborhood, driven by the nearby tech industry, UCSF campus, and proximity to downtown.  The buildings may be fresh and new, but the street life is lagging.

The SoMa Streat owner broached his Mission Bay idea cautiously, expecting pushback from the newly-settled residents.  He was wrong.  The Mission Bay community was excited by the possibility, offering to give him their blessing before he was ready.  The residents saw the food park concept as a way to kick start the urban vitality of their new neighborhood.

After observing this trend from my vantage point in the North Bay, I’ve been trying to fold the idea into the Urban Chat plan for the possible reuse of the Fairgrounds in Petaluma.  The concept that resulted was a public plaza that could serve as a farmers’ market in the morning before transitioning to a food truck gathering place as the day wore on.

But the execution of that idea, even if it survives the many steps in the upcoming City/Fair Board negotiations, is at least a dozen years away.

But perhaps Petaluma needn’t wait that long for a food truck gathering spot.  Local resident Charles Hildreth has already met with Petaluma Planning about converting an unused area behind the AutoZone store on E. Washington Street into a food truck park.  His working name for the project is The Block.

I’m thrilled by the proposal.  I’ve long argued that the aging industrial area bounded by E. Washington, the Petaluma River, and the railroad tracks is a remarkable but underused Petaluma asset.  In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs writes of the need for older, low-rent buildings where start-up businesses can focus on their ideas without worrying about rosewood paneled walls.    The industrial area is Petaluma’s best stock of buildings that meet that description.  And it’s only a short walk from the soon-to-opened SMART train station.

I unsuccessfully suggested that updated thinking about the industrial area be folded into the Station Area Master Plan on the other side of E. Washington Street.  That suggestion may have failed, but the food truck park may become another way to give a boost to the underused industrial district.

Go partake of a food truck meal today.  If you haven’t done so recently, you might be surprised.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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