Where have all the food carts gone?

Near the corner of SE 50th and Division in Portland is a food cart pod that was a great place to grab a quick bite to eat. The A la carts Food Pavilion was home to more than a dozen trucks serving a variety of food from tacos and burritos to Thai stir-fry, fish and chips, and ice cream. Musicians played on a makeshift stage in the summer. A communal, covered seating space provided shelter from the rain. Kids were free to run around in the open and play games.

I am using the past tense because that food cart pod is closing down. A developer has bought the land to build a multi-unit apartment building. The food carts have to be out by the end of May. Already most of the small businesses have moved, leaving the lot almost empty.

I am mourning not only the loss of a great place to grab cheap, convenient food close to my home, but also the loss of a community gathering space where small businesses served a local neighborhood that doesn’t yet have the plethora of restaurants and coffee shops that line SE Division closer in to the city center.

The loss of communal spaces, like food carts pods, is a sad consequence of the apartment building boom that is changing the face of Portland neighborhoods. Multi-story apartment buildings are going up all over the city to meet the demand for housing as the population expands.

I am not against increasing density in the city. There is a shortage of rental units and affordable housing that has made Portland an increasingly expensive place to live. But it is sad the apartment boom comes at the expense of small businesses and community gathering spots, which make up the overall aesthetic of the city, and is often the very reason people move here.

Developers and city planners need to strike more of a balance between meeting the demand for housing and supporting the small business economy that adds to the sense of community in the city’s neighborhoods. One solution is to construct more buildings that lease micro-retail space to small businesses, such as restaurants that got their start in the food truck business. A good example is The Ocean, a former tire center on NE Glisan, which forms five mini restaurant spaces. The outlets have indoor seating for a dozen or so customers, smaller than the average restaurant but much bigger than the space taken up by a typical food cart.

This strip of mini restaurants with brightly colored facades and outdoor seating where people can congregate is the kind of development that embraces small business culture and community while making use of underutilized space.   

The Ocean doesn’t have apartments above it, but that is not to say other building projects can’t incorporate residential units above and Ocean-style business space below.  Instead of constructing mixed-use buildings that lease to another Starbucks, why not rent retail space to displaced food carts or other micro-enterprises. Buildings could also include more courtyards or community spaces where people can gather and children can play.      

Portland’s development boom is evidence of the city’s healthy economy, but let it not turn into the building of monolithic apartments that obliterate the city’s vibrant small business culture. 

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