Chalk one up for the food trucks.
After the city of St. Paul surprised street food operators by posting "No Trespassing" signs and barricading a long-vacant East Side lot where they'd done business for years, the truck owners took action, posting their chagrin on Facebook.
"Is this how the city treats their small businesses and entrepreneurs?" posted Sachoua Vang, owner of the Ninja Sushi food truck. "Is this how we activate our neighborhoods such as the East Side?"
Those posts, shared, echoed and amplified by neighborhood officials like Chuck Repke, went straight to city officials' ears. As a result, the Department of Planning and Economic Development is now clearing the way for the food trucks to return to the lot off White Bear Avenue, perhaps as soon as Monday.
"We need to learn how we can appreciate and promote small businesses," said City Council Member Kassim Busuri, who represents the area and intervened via e-mail after learning of the imbroglio from Facebook posts. "We need to be a helping arm rather than just an enforcement arm."
For decades, the lot in the city's Hillcrest neighborhood was home to Hafner's, a once-thriving bowling alley, restaurant and lounge. Over the years, the building fell into disrepair and in 2002 was sold to St. Paul's Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Hafner's was razed, and the 2.2-acre property has been looking for a developer ever since.
To keep some semblance of activity on the lot, managed by the North East Neighborhoods Development Corp. (NENDC), a colorful variety of taco, sushi, barbecue and ice cream trucks — and their customers — have been allowed to park there several days a week. Repke, NENDC executive director, said there have been few complaints "and a lot of people thought it was fun."
"We started doing it because food trucks were parking on the side streets and people were standing in the street buying food and it wasn't very safe," he said.
Until recently, it's been a pretty low-key arrangement. The NENDC provided liability insurance, for which food truck operators paid $100 a month. But when Repke began renewing arrangements with truck operators this year, he said new staff members at Planning and Economic Development said they would need to obtain a conditional-use permit — at a cost of up to $1,500. It would also take six to eight weeks to process.
In the meantime, the trucks kept parking there. Then someone complained.
On June 4, the food truck operators found "No Trespassing" signs, and "someone from [the] city was waiting to kick us out of the lot. No negotiations, explanation or reason," Vang said. "He said, 'You guys have to get out of the lot or we are going to call the cops.' "
Concrete barricades were put in place, forcing the food trucks to go back to parking on the streets — and launching what Repke called a social-media frenzy.
This attracted the attention of Bruce Corrie, St. Paul's director of planning and economic development. He met with the food truck operators last week and quickly decided to intervene on their behalf.
"I really appreciated how rooted they are in the community," he said. "We want to celebrate the vitality that is happening."
The barricades will be removed once an agreement is finalized and the city is sure that everyone who uses the lot "is safe and protected," Corrie said. A handful of trucks and their customers will be able to return to the lot in the next few days and the entire lot will be available once a long-term permit is issued. Because the city owns the land, Corrie said, his department is covering the permit fee.
Corrie is so enthused about the food trucks' popularity in the area that he wants to explore having them do business on other vacant commercial lots around town.
"We are looking at other possibilities and venues," he said. "We want to explore ways to give them more visibility and give them more opportunities."
All of which has folks like Daniel Zimmerschied, owner of the Fire Cream food truck, excited for the future — at the Hafner's lot and beyond.
"I think it's just easier for customers if they can let us use this lot and others," said Zimmerschied, whose truck was parked alongside the Hafner's lot Thursday. "I think the community likes having it, too."
Tong Yang, who bought a dish of tempura-battered deep-fried ice cream from the bright blue trailer, agreed.
"Having the food trucks, having people here, just makes this area more alive," he said.