The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Annise Parker has, by executive fiat, lifted the ban on propane-fueled food trucks operating downtown (and in the Texas Medical Center). Citing a recent opinion by the Fire Marshall, who noted that there are not any real dangers for them operating, Parker unilaterally made the decision. In years past, Parker has pushed for a few changes in food truck policy, but the City Council has always been extraordinarily tepid.
Like I explained last month, this decision comes on the heels of a proposed expansive revamp of food truck ordinances. After receiving some pushback from the Council, Parker delayed it. The Chronicle article notes it should be brought back up with a vengeance at some point in October. Observers of Houston politics will note that this has become the signature political move of the Mayor, re-introducing slightly different proposals over and over again until a beaten down Council assents to her will. I suppose this is a benefit of a Strong-Mayor system of government, and I think most politicians would do the same.
The Council-proposal would namely allow food trucks to congregate close together and eliminate a ban on individual tables and chairs. There are also some concerns about the super stringent safety regulations that the trucks must follow. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A) and Robert Gallegos (D-District I), respectively, were noted by the Chronicle as somewhat vociferous critics. Gallegos in particular made some really apt comments.
“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” Gallegos told the Chronicle. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”
Parker announced the unilateral change Friday afternoon, and I didn’t have time to do any research on this before end of business. I’m planning on calling a few Council offices tomorrow and will update if I receive some meaningful comments.
Just as I argued last month, my thoughts on food trucks are somewhat complicated. For far too long, the most heated critics of food trucks, such as former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2), employed exceedingly bizarre and lousy talking points. Fears about exploding propane tanks or terrorists using the trucks are largely unfounded. Yes, food trucks have blown up before. But so have restaurants. Especially considering that the trucks were already allowed in the high-density uptown and Greenway Plaza districts, I just don’t see any legitimate reason to oppose the trucks entrance into downtown. That being said, it was wholly inappropriate for Parker to go about it like this. I’ll let the attorneys argue about the legality (my guess is that Parker had a right to do this), but doing something by executive order when your legislature is unwilling always smells wrong to me. I don’t like it when the President does it, and I don’t like it when the Mayor does it.
Similarly, I don’t have an issue with the food trucks congregating. Food truck parks are neat creations that serve Austin well, and would be a welcome addition to more areas in Houston. But the ban on individual tables and chairs for the trucks make sense. If you park a truck and set up your tables and chairs, you turn into a pop-up restaurant. Simply put, given the strict regulations that restaurants must obey, it is unacceptable to allow the less-regulated trucks to provide the same service.
Food trucks claim they provide a different service from restaurants, and therefore should be regulated differently. That’s fine, but in order for this reality to work, the trucks actually have to act differently from restaurants. This means moving around and not providing on-site eating options unless it is part of a larger collective.
That being said, most people do not really care too much about equity in restaurant ordinances. Gallegos’ comments provide the most compelling case for preserving the super strict safety requirements the trucks must follow. For many inside-the-loop liberals, their only interaction with mobile eateries is in the form of glitzy mini-buses zooming around Montrose. But the laws also cover less glamorous vehicles, namely in some of the poorer districts. When the Council finally discusses this, I really hope those concerns are addressed well.
As for me, I’m walking to a food truck park in Austin for lunch.
Off the Kuff has more.