Martin recently posted about the lack of success Seattle’s food trucks.  There’s plenty of good discussion in the comments about whether food trucks are even a good idea.  I thought I’d take a step back and look at what the best system would be, and how to best approximate that system.

If I had a magic wand that could change downtown Seattle exactly how I’d want it, when it came to restaurants we’d have a lot more areas that look like this:

Pike Place, Wikimedia

Restaurants with narrow storefronts with walk-up counters for to-go food orders.  There would be traditional, deep and wide restaurants as well, but these would be far less prevalent than the skinny restaurants.  Workers could run by and buy food to take back to work or eat in a park.  Thanks to the low square footage these restaurants would take up, rents could be low which would drive down food prices and drive up business diversity. Now let’s take a look at how much of downtown actually looks:

5th and Columbia, Google Maps

Ugh.  Although Seattle has Pike Place Market, the International District, Pioneer Square, and Capitol Hill which each approximate my ideal street shown in the first picture, the setbacks, parking garages, and dead walls of our modern buildings downtown leave us with a vast street food desert right where people actually work.  Yes, there are food courts inside these buildings, but they’re often over capacity and filled mostly with large chains that can afford the rent.  And pulling people underground kills street life.

Not having a magic wand, how would I fix downtown?  Tear down these multi-million dollar buildings and start over?  No.  Build up podiums in the wasted space filled with narrow restaurants and other businesses?  Now you’re talking!  But I’m not sure how to get building owners to invest in that, plus the cost would likely drive up rents.

This is the point at which we consider street food.  If this were an Asian city we’d just allow little carts to run around wherever the business is and sell food.  But we’re very health-conscious here (yet somehow we don’t live as long), so we put the food in big trucks that have sinks and refrigerators and look for a place to park them.  Of course, finding parking in the city is tough.

My proposal: Use our alleys.

The most underused space downtown, even more than those empty setbacks, is our alleys.  Alleys are very useful for shipping and garbage collection, but little else.  What if we allowed one side of an alley – say 30′ deep – to be used for street food?  I’m picturing a food truck parked perpendicular to the alley, with food carts lining one or both sides from that truck to the sidewalk.  Keep the other side of the alley open for deliveries and have the food carts leave during garbage pickup hours.

38 Replies to “On Food Trucks as a Reasonable Compromise”

  1. Food carts are great, even though, as a vegetarian, I would rarely feel safe eating food from one of them.

    One of the problems carts and to-go stands do not solve is the ubiquitous lack of publicly-available restrooms if you don’t want to buy something. (Okay, most of us know where the restrooms are, but the typical tourist does not.) The places that do make their restrooms available do so at great expense of having to clean them frequently all day, as they can get nasty pretty quickly. Some of those places were built with large public subsidies, so I think it is only fair they make these restrooms available.

    There are some hidden gems in alleys already, but most will not think to go there (except for the well-advertised Post Alley). There is an independent Irish pub around behind the corporate-chain Fado, for example. It’s screen is larger, for Sounders away nights.

    I also have to cringe at your description that “finding parking in the city is tough”. Doesn’t that just mean we’re making parking too cheap? I’m so sick if the sense of entitlement people feel to make every lane that is available be packed with parked cars. This is Seattle. Leave the car at home, and use our wonderful transit system. But I do think we don’t have enough taxis roaming downtown. The end of the Ride Free Area may help bring more taxis downtown, though.

    1. As a fellow vegetarian, I disagree – I’d prefer to see how my food is prepared.

      Lack of restrooms is a significant problem downtown. Even many restaurants don’t have restrooms available for customers. I’m not sure it would be made worse by adding food carts.

      Post Ave (with the Owl and Thistle you describe) is actually being converted into even more of a destination alley – they’re building storefronts in the new Colman Tower on the alley side.

      1. How we have sunk since the 19th century (say I as a true conservative) when the government felt that it was its responsibility to provide public restrooms.

  2. Shipping and truck deliveries are a pretty important lifeline for many downtown businesses and there isn’t much room on-street where those large delivery vehicles can park. I think alleys are a better place for delivery trucks than food trucks.

    Pike Place Market is great but remember: it’s essentially a quasi-government supported, open-air food court that fails to meet many current ADA requirements that would be required in any other new construction. Don’t expect to replicate the Market in other locations.

    The high price of downtown food is a result of the fact that most restaurants have a very small window for making money–lunchtime. It takes a couple of hours to prep, set-up, clean-up and close down, but people are only hungry between 11 and 2. So there’s a lot of overhead that goes into any food service operation. Even the food trucks have to do their prep work at a faraway commissary and then drive to the city to sell, so it may not really a lot cheaper to sell from a truck than a brick & mortar restaurant.

    1. People don’t always realize how EASY it is to follow the ADA in new construction.

      Unless you’re trying to scale a hill or cram an enormous amount of stuff into a tiny space (a problem with cars, buses, and trains), it’s pretty much trivial to follow the ADA in new construction.

      It’s much much harder to retrofit something to follow the ADA, which is why the law has a general exemption for old, unmodified construction.

  3. Thanks Matt. I’d like some comments from architects as to what can really be done with the structures of the existing modern buildings in the second picture. Would it be possible to modify the street-level floors to be more open to- the street?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Anything’s possible with enough money… Just give me a 10% design fee and I’ll whip you up something grand!

  4. What do you guys think about the food court on the 4th floor of Westlake…sometimes when I get frustrated walking around the city looking for something decent, I go there and get good under $10 lunches.

    If I’m feeling spendy, I can also go to Pacific Place mall which has a high end food court.

    1. I’ve used it, there’s some good chains in there. One place in particular that makes very nice yakisoba for pretty cheap.

      But if I’m grabbing lunch it that part of town, I’m more likely to swing by the lunch-stops in Marion Square (3rd & Marion). I don’t really know why, it just feels more comfortable and more accessible. Plus there’s a nice outdoor courtyard for the summertime eating, something I can’t get in the Columbia tower without paying big-bucks for the rooftop cafe.

      I’ll probably have to switch to the Columbia tower if that lot’s ever redeveloped, though.

  5. A lot of retailers want small shallow frontage to rent. However, that’s not as lucrative for building owners/developers to set up, so it doesn’t happen a lot.

    You are also describing the Christopher Alexander “Pattern Language” pattern called Shopping Streets, and another that uses alleys/mews. If you aren’t familiar with that book you might enjoy it as a keep-by-the-bed-and-read-a-few-each-night book.

    1. “A lot of retailers want small shallow frontage to rent. However, that’s not as lucrative for building owners/developers to set up, so it doesn’t happen a lot.”

      I can’t imagine why it would not be as lucrative. The developer still has the upper stories to develop “the other way”, and still has a large interior segment on the ground floor which can be rented successfully.

      1. I’m actually impressed how often I see the alley flushing trucks in Belltown at night.

    1. In Portland you get to pay $12 for a turkey sandwich and you have to eat it in the rain. In Europe I eat tons of street food because it’s fast and cheap. Here it’s average speed, expensive and less than ideal eating under a raincloud. I’m not sure why our mobile food services think charging restaurant prices and then making you eat outside (even though their costs are half) is a great idea.

      1. Supply and demand? Here we have very few mobile options, so they can charge what they want and still have a long line. It’s only when there’s so much competition that the lines dissapear that prices drop.

        (plus, isn’t the standard price like $5 in Portland? seems like it was a few years ago)

  6. Great post. I just spent some time in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and couldn’t help but come to the exact same conclusion. Outside of small pockets in their respective financial districts, these cities have large, bustling downtowns with packed storefront, skinny restaurants and bars, huge sidewalks and very few dead walls.

    I don’t understand why so much of Downtown Seattle has such huge commercial spaces. Even Belltown, walking down the 1st and 2nd Ave corridors, most of the establishments are overly large with big gaps in between and far more dead wall space.

    Two streets I really love in terms of their street feel and the way they restaurants and bars are packed are The Ave and Broadway (the Northern stretch). These areas have lots of skinny commercial spaces, are pedestrian-oriented – they just have that clustered, lively vibe that Belltown and much of the rest of downtown have.

    I don’t know if I think street carts are a solution to that problem, or just a temporary band-aid. I guess it’s better than nothing, but I feel there has to be another, more cohesive way to transform the landscape of these drab areas.

    1. That should read in the second to last paragraph:

      “clustered, lively vibe that Belltown and much of the rest of downtown DON’T have”

    2. Of course – the Ave! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It seems crazy to me that downtown doesn’t have many places like this. We certainly have the population density.

      1. The Ave, to me, feels more like a true urban environment than almost anywhere else in Seattle – and for the very reasons you highlight in your post. Being in my mid-30s, the target demographic for a lot of the businesses is a lot younger, but I love the clustered, vibrant, urban atmosphere, and the blocks packed with skinny storefronts.

  7. Sometimes I miss my college years in DC when I could go get a hot dog or a pretzel from a street vender across the street from my dorm. They had them all over town, actually–makes it easy for a tourist to get a bottle of water or a quick (albeit unhealthy) snack for the kids. I really wish there was a cart like that across from my office building downtown, because I would totally run out there and get a pretzel and some faux-cheese sauce right now. DC is also a city with a lot of plazas and big blank walls and large store fronts, I wonder if that’s why food carts are so prevalent there.

  8. I tend to think that each neighborhood and it’s center of commerce has a block or three that really could be closed to cars with the intent of having outdoor cafe (heated and covered, some) seating, food trucks, port-o-potties and the like. And I’m not opposed to your alley idea, Matt, but I feel like we have an even better option that is not being fully explored for what I can only conclude is lack of vision and political will. the Nickels Administration tried car free Sundays and businesses squawked. However there are blocks on Capitol Hill, Fremont, downtown, Queen Anne, and other neighborhoods that are ideal for this kind of direction. It’s just that you need to go to the businesses and develop a plan that makes this an opportunity for them instead of a threat. I’m thinking specifically of areas like Pike St between 10th and 12th.

    This city lacks gathering spaces, town squares and other spaces that create opportunities for culture, people to wander and people watch. These are features that all great cities have and something that benefit residents and tourists/businesses alike.

    Creating not just the food truck but outdoor seating environment for established businesses by closing some blocks to traffic seems like one of the best ways to demonstrate how this can work and wear down the resistance.

    1. Historically, closing entire blocks which are part of a street grid to cars has been a poor idea in most places. (If the block breaks the grid or isn’t part of a grid, closing it does work.)

      It has been rather more effective to close an entire lane of an overly-wide street and create a mega-sidewalk, and Seattle generally has absurdly wide streets, so….

  9. As a former delivery driver, I do not like this idea one bit.

    Under city law, alleys are currently treated as 30 minute parking zones for vehicles with commercial plates (X#####X formatted plate numbers).
    And while they may look underused to you, if you drive around 40 hours a week making deliveries downtown, you realize there’s a constant churn of commercial vehicles parking in them all day long, often 2 or 3 vehicles deep.

    Block one end of them long-term, and suddenly they become a lot less useful. You won’t be able to double up without fear of blocking the first driver in – the current FIFO strategy of alley parking means you can stack 3 or 4 deep without serious fears of significantly delaying another driver. Also, backing a 40′ box truck out of an alley, across a sidewalk, and onto a downtown street safely during business hours is a 2 man job minimum, and most delivery drivers work solo. Backing in is a slightly safer strategy if you know in advance you won’t be able drive forward and out, but you still can’t see what pedestrians are doing behind the truck.

    If this were implemented, we would need at minimum one additional “yellow” 40′ truck loading zone for every alley that’s blocked. At that point it seems to be more expedient to create food-truck spaces and leave the alleys exclusively for commercial vehicles.

  10. It still irks me that the only food you guys want to eat is on a truck.

    For example, can they put a dining car on a LINK train or a Sounder?

    How about taking the back end of one, and installing a tapas bar?

    I think people would ride them just to socialize then…pants and all!

    1. Another thing that you see in Paris a lot is outside order windows at restaurants. You walk up to the window like it was a street vendor and order your food then eat it outside or walking down the street. Even McDonalds does walk up windows.

      1. There are a few restaurants around the city with walk-up windows. Not nearly enough, in my opinion.

      2. Hmm… I wonder what could be done to make it easier for places to do such walkup windows? Especially with late night bar hours possibly coming about I can see increased demand for late night food options in those districts (which also happen to be full of little restaurants to begin with) and places wanting to not have to worry about the cost/security of having the whole dining area open.

    2. A bar or a snack bar would work, but not a dining car. The longest possible trip on Sounder or Link without a transfer will be about two two hours, and that’s assuming you’re going from Tacoma to Everett, which very few people do. Most trips on Link or Sounder will be 15-60 minutes.

  11. Where I lived in Germany, there was this little stand alone Argentinian Grill in the courtyard of my apartment complex (imagine a 3 story U shape, with the open end facing the road). No tables or chairs, just a high bar on one side. Most everyone just did take away. Stayed open till about nine, good for a quick bite to eat and the guys did a good job of policing the area and making sure people who weren’t supposed to be in the area weren’t (some creepy drunk dude followed some young females back once).

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