Sunday, February 07, 2010

A hot dog cart on every street corner

Luanne Rife

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

“If you want to see a place with activity, put out food. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor at the corner and a knot of people around him — eating, schmoozing or just standing.” — William H. Whyte, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.”

   The quote appeared on the title page of a presentation given to Roanoke City Council discussing an ordinance to allow street cart vendors.  

   I like street cart food.

   I’ll eat just about anything off the street, especially the good stuff, the stuff I rarely toss in the grocery cart. Hot dogs, sausages, big salty pretzels, ice cream sandwiches. I love the stuff.

   It’s not just the taste, though I have been known to wax at length over the proper, perfect combination of ingredients to top a dog. (The Yankee in me must caution that Southerners, while perfecting many foods, have got one thing really wrong. Slaw is not a substitute for sauerkraut.)

   No, my admiration of street food goes beyond taste. It’s the smell of onions sizzling, the surprise of espying a snow-cone cart during an afternoon of sightseeing in the hot sun, the quickly exchangedconversations with vendors, the sensation of slurping the dripping sides of an ice cream   sandwich while strolling to the next destination.

   Street vendors, as Councilman Dave Trinkle puts it, “add an extra vibe.”

   Trinkle and his colleagues are looking to bring that missing vibe to Roanoke by enacting an ordinance that would allow street   cart vendors in most commercial and recreation districts. They could set up on most downtown sidewalks, parks, plazas, even at Mill Mountain Star, with one huge exception — the City Market area.  

   Currently, Roanoke banishes street carts to private property in business zones, which are mostly far from the foot traffic needed to sustain the venture.

   There’s a reason for this; it’s the same reason council’s plan might unravel.

   Many restaurant owners aren’t as receptive as Trinkle is to the idea.

   They worry that vendors, with very little overhead, would have an unfair competitive edge. Somehow I doubt that a diner heading for 202 Market would be sidelined by a Polish sausage or an Italian ice, but a hot dog cart parked in front of the Weiner Stand very well could snatch   customers.

   Still, Roanoke is big enough for both, and city staff has developed a good framework on which to build an ordinance.

   Vendors could not be located near a restaurant and would need to abide by health department standards and inspections. They couldn’t block accesses and would need to have trash cans nearby.

   Permits would be granted for specific locations after a site plan is presented and a $100 application fee paid. A $250 charge would come every six months to keep it. By anchoring locations, vendors would not be able to wheel into someone else’s territory, though the plan will encourage clustering of vendors  

   One parts

   plan is that it would open all city sidewalks, plazas and parks to street vendors most days and times. Exceptions will protect established events by prohibiting street vendors from competing with existing concession stands or operating during parades and festivals that require separate permits.

   The most desirable location, the market area, remains off limits — at least for now.

   If council pushed to include it, public support might prove difficult.

   Instead, City Manager Darlene   Burcham explained the strategy of adopting an ordinance to cover everywhere else: Let it work long enough to show that street carts don’t spell the end to established businesses, then look at expanding it.

   Soon, city staff will meet with those with an interest in the plan, then they will draw up more detailed regulations to be presented for public comment.  

   I one : vendors to post their prices. While most of my encounters with street vendors have been pleasant, one in Virginia Beach a few years ago stands in contrast. My daughter and I were riding a tandem bike on the boardwalk. The sun was beating down, and the city had picked that morning to paint all the water fountains. We pulled over near a vendor. I gave my daughter a $10 bill. She returned with a bottle of water and no change. I confronted the vendor. He said he wasn’t going to give her any change. Why should he? He had to pay this much for his cart, that much to the city for a permit and ... . So, he’s going to make it up all in one day off thirsty little girls? With a price list, council easily could discourage that kind of vibe.

   Traud is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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