SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s City Council next week will likely pass a resolution in support of Mayor Javier Gonzales’ initiatives to draw people to the Plaza, stimulate the nighttime economy and “grow Santa Fe young” by allowing food trucks to set up downtown at night.
What remains to be determined is a fair price for what city Asset Development Director Matt O’Reilly called “arguably the most expensive piece of real estate in the Southwest.”
The real estate in question is three parking spots big enough to park food trucks just off the northwest corner of the Plaza, smack in the middle of downtown and the city’s tourist zone.
Factoring into the council’s decision is that the spaces – reserved not just for food trucks but theoretically for vehicle vendors selling something besides comestibles – will only be available during certain hours of the day. And, unlike shops surrounding the Plaza or even the pushcart vendors who set up shop there now, no one has territorial rights to the parking space pavement.
As currently written, the resolution the council is expected to vote on next Wednesday says that the three parking spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning at the stroke of 5 or 6 p.m. each day, depending on what the councilors decide.
It could lead to a food fight the likes of which Santa Fe has never seen before.
“The competition could get very fierce down there,” warned Councilor Bill Dimas during the May 13 council meeting.
“It could be a free-for-all,” Councilor Patti Bushee added.
Attending a school function with one of his daughters, Gonzales missed that meeting and the public hearing and debate among councilors that followed. The mayor was not available for comment on this story.
The resolution would allow for three food trucks to park within the Plaza’s periphery, defined as being bordered by Grant, Alameda, Paseo de Peralta, and Marcy streets. The resolution currently specifies the three designated on-street parking spaces where trucks would be allowed to park, just off the Plaza.
Two of them are on Palace Avenue just west of the clock at the intersection of Palace and Lincoln avenues. The third is on Lincoln just north of the intersection.
The trucks are to be allowed to stay at the same location for no more than three hours. Also, while the resolution designates just the three specific spaces for food trucks, it also says they can’t park within 150 feet of the street-level entrance to any restaurant during its operating hours.
The original draft of the resolution called for food trucks to use the spots from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., but Councilor Sig Lindell, the lead sponsor of the resolution, offered an amendment to expand the hours from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.
If approved on Wednesday, the new regulations would go into effect the following day.
Food trucks fit in well with the agenda Gonzales laid out while campaigning for mayor. His “People to the Plaza” proposal, aimed at creating a more vibrant scene downtown and increasing economic development opportunities, was the first resolution he introduced after he took over as mayor in March of last year.
Part of that plan included the closure of two additional streets bordering the Plaza to motor vehicle traffic during the warmer months, leaving San Francisco Street as the only pass-through from the day after Memorial Day through the end of Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta in October.
In addition, eight picnic tables with sunshades were placed on Lincoln Avenue to provide additional seating. A separate resolution to add eight more at the opposite side of the Plaza on Old Santa Fe Trail has passed through committee and may also come up for vote at next Wednesday’s council meeting.
While Santa Fe is considered a world-class city in many respects, its culinary scene among them, it is not known for its nightlife. The mayor made it an objective to endeavor to find ways to keep the economic candle burning after dark.
Some say that part of the reason Santa Fe’s nightlife is drab is because it lacks the youthful energy found in other progressive cities. The gen-Xers, millennials and hipsters have moved away in search of stimulus outside the city’s art galleries and museums, this theory maintains.
According to U.S. Census figures, the median age of a Santa Fean rose from 40 in 2000 to 44 in 2010.
A city that has grown older may also have grown out-of-touch. And food trucks are all the rage around the country.
“I’m really glad the mayor is making moves to bring in more food trucks,” said David Sellers, program director for the Street Food Institute, a nonprofit that not only teaches the culinary arts from the back of a truck but functions as a small-business incubator. “It’s something that should have been done a long time ago.”
Behind the curve
Sellers is as in tune to the food truck trend as much as anyone, and, while Santa Fe likes to consider itself a forward-thinking city, it has been way behind the curve when it comes to mobile eats, Sellers said.
“We were initially going to get started in Santa Fe, but the licensing is so restrictive. Santa Fe has a reputation for not being so good about that,” he said.
While the resolution addressing food trucks around the Plaza periphery was postponed last week, the City Council did act to repeal the old ordinance governing street vendors and replaced it with a new one that is more food truck friendly. Under the old ordinance that’s been replaced, the city restricted the number of permits for street vendors selling food to 10 and to five selling non-food items.
The new ordinance, now called the “Vehicle Vendor Ordinance,” removes the limit entirely and creates two categories: mobile and stationary vehicle vendors. It also streamlines the business license fee structure. The $100 fee now covers the business license and fire inspection fee.
“It’s a step in the right direction. And Santa Fe is such a foodie town, it only makes sense,” Sellers said.
Sellers also likes the idea of bringing food trucks downtown. He said the Street Food Institute last year brought one of its trucks to several downtown Santa Fe events, including the Santa Fe Bandstand music series and the inaugural three-night Nightwave festival, designed specifically to promote nightlife.
“It was a blast. We’ll definitely be there this summer,” he said, meaning that the Street Food Institute plans to park near the Plaza at some times this summer, assuming the resolution passes.
Asked about the first-come, first-served policy, Sellers said, “I personally don’t think that’s a great idea. You don’t know what the demand for those spots is going to be.”
Sellers said he could see the potential for conflict amount vendors. But another factor is that there is no guarantee they’ll get one of the parking spots. That creates issues concerning staffing and stocking the truck, he said.
Sellers said other cities, such as Los Angles, Portland, Ore., San Antonio, Texas, and Washington, D.C., have gone through this before and dealt with some of the same issues Santa Fe is facing now.
“It’s kind of been a trial by fire process. What I’ve seen is (cities) kind of wing it. Food trucks start popping up, and they realize they have to deal with it,” he said.
While it’s hard to say what the demand will be in Santa Fe, most other cities have adopted some kind of process to determine who gets what spots.
An amendment to Santa Fe’s resolution does provide that “the city manager is authorized to adopt administrative procedures for the management and enforcement” of the use of the designated spots “should the need arise.”
Businesses are wary
Not everyone is keen on allowing food trucks downtown. During a public hearing last week, several people spoke against the resolution, including three from the First National Bank of Santa Fe, which is located on the Plaza’s northwest corner and near the designated areas for the food trucks.
Jennifer Lind, executive vice-president at the bank, said the bank has concerns about security and the amount of trash that would be generated. The bank already has problems with people using its parking lot as a trash dump and bathroom.
“We can’t take care of what we’ve got going on right now,” she said. “What’s it going to be like when we’ve got folks out there until 1 or 2 in the morning?”
John Dressman, who owns two stores on the Plaza and was representing the Santa Fe Downtown Merchants Association, had the same concerns as the bank.
“From my point of view and from the association’s point of view, this thing really isn’t ready. It needs to be fine-tuned,” he said of the resolution. “And quite frankly, I don’t think it’s fair for the 22 restaurants within a block of the Plaza to do this in the evenings.”
Nick Maryol, owner of Tia Sophia’s restaurant on East San Francisco Street, said the resolution probably affects his business least of all, since it’s not open for dinner. But he said the resolution left him in a tizzy, because it seemed so unfair to restaurants.
He said food trucks gain an advantage, because they don’t incur the costs that restaurants do. They don’t have to pay rent, the same type of liability insurance and water usage fees that restaurants do. Instead, they only come in on the best days, during the best hours and “skim off the top,” he said.
“I don’t know what their permit is, but I guarantee you it doesn’t make up for the costs we restaurant owners pay every day of the year,” he said.
Carts versus trucks?
Some city councilors also had serious concerns about perceived inequities between the vehicle vendor and Plaza pushcart ordinances. The Plaza’s pushcart sellers include longtime mainstays like Roque’s Carnitas and El Molero Fajitas
City Councilor Joseph Maestas said he has talked to some of the Plaza cart vendors and they are “dismayed” that while the pushcart fees are doubling to $3,000 per year, food trucks just pay the $100 vehicle vendor license and no more.
That complaint came up more than once during last week’s discussion.
But O’Reilly, the city’s asset development director, called it an “apples to oranges” comparison.
“Unlike anyone else in the city, they are allowed exclusive use of the (Plaza) park,” he said of the pushcart vendors. “The mobile vendors are not given exclusive rights to anywhere … If they show up and the spaces are taken, too bad.”
Councilor Chris Rivera said he had a hard time swallowing some of the complaints from people who had already established businesses on the Plaza.
“They had to get their foot in the door at some point, and now that they’re there, they want exclusivity. They just want the Plaza for themselves,” he said.
While councilors Bushee and Maestas wanted to postpone action on the resolution until after another public hearing or a meeting with businesspeople and vendors, the majority of the governing body was willing to delay the decision only until the next meeting, May 27. They said the matter had been vetted through the committee process and the only debate left was among the councilors themselves.
Councilor Sig Lindell, the lead sponsor of the resolution, said in a phone interview this week that the rules can always be tweaked later.
“We’re going to give it a try, and if, by the end of the summer, we decide something doesn’t work, we’ll change it,” she said.
“Let’s give it an opportunity to see what it’s going to do and then make adjustments as we go,” Rivera said. “I think that was the beauty of what Councilor Lindell put together. It gave us flexibility moving forward.”