Invasion of the Pod People

Invasion of the Pod People

“Food pods” are transforming previously vacant parking lots in Portland. What is their potential for success in a city like Philadelphia?

Vendors in Portland’s Mississippi Market food pod. Credit: Ryan Briggs

On the edge of Northeast Portland’s Boise neighborhood, a gleaming, four-story loft building looms over North Mississippi Avenue. A commercial stretch comprised mostly of low-slung boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants, rapidly urbanizing Mississippi Avenue is emblematic of a “new” Portland that has emerged amidst blocks of tidy single-family housing built in the postwar period.

While these houses, with their lawns and garages, may have more in common with suburban America than many of the nation’s big cities, the population boom has fueled demand for cosmopolitan amenities. But even as Boises’ new lofts transform the neighborhood’s skyline, it’s the Mississippi Marketplace, closer to ground level, that’s truly revolutionizing the neighborhood.

Anchored by a brick-and-mortar German gastropub, the marketplace is essentially a parking lot jammed with food carts offering everything from Southern barbecue to Korean fusion to microbrew booze from some of the city’s well-loved brewers. One of more than 20 “food pods” scattered around the city, the pop-up food court is part of an explosive phenomenon in Portland that has radically expanded dining options in growing neighborhoods like Boise.

Food pods represent a new neighborhood development strategy that could also hold lessons for reemerging cities like Philadelphia with areas that are long on density and potential, but short on service.

For Portland, implementing the food pod concept was, from a logistical standpoint, fairly straightforward. “There was no regulation or deregulation, we just started looking at it like we would any other [mobile vendor],” said Ross Caron, public information officer at Portland’s Bureau of Development Services. The city, he said, doesn’t regulate food trucks clustered on commercial parking lots any differently than it regulates food trucks on similarly zoned public streets. “As long as the land use allowed for commercial activity and they were operating on a legal parking area we don’t regulate them differently.” The lack of regulation made every parking lot in the city a potential site for vendor clusters.

In Philadelphia, getting to pod is more complicated because of the city’s legendarily byzantine city code. “The biggest obstacle is simply outdated legislation,” said Andrew Gerson, who runs the Strada Pasta food truck and helped found the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association (PMFA). The tough road isn’t stopping Gerson, however. Working with the City Council, the mobile foodie is developing a new set of ordinances that would allow for pods to operate legally.

Currently, Philadelphia’s roughly 250 food vendors are restricted from operating outside of certain hours and only at one of 400 street locations preapproved by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), making vending clusters like Portland’s more or less impossible. “Most current regulations on mobile vending haven’t been touched since the 1980s,” said Gerson.

Now home to some 700 mobile vendors, Portland has seen a fourfold increase in the number of food carts since 2001. Perhaps most critically for forever-broke Philly, Portland officials say the growth in businesses has cost the municipality virtually nothing. Once a feature unique to Portlandia, the food pod system has recently been duplicated by cities around the country from Brooklyn to Seattle to San Francisco.

But Gerson wants Philadelphia to go a step further. He imagines food pods as a dynamic way to take advantage of not just surface parking lots, but also Philadelphia’s massive collection of vacant land. In addition to functioning as a quick, low-risk way to bring a wider variety of food to burgeoning neighborhoods, he said, pods could turn vacant land into positive economic development tools. The problem this time is that even the newly revised zoning code is silent on the issue. “There’s nothing written in the Philly [zoning] code about the use of vacant or even private land for [mobile] vending purposes,” he said.

One of Philadelphia’s about 250 mobile food vendors. Credit: Flickr user sameold2010

Gerson said he had secured permission from the owner of an undeveloped parcel in the Northern Liberties neighborhood to host several food trucks in exchange for regular rental payments. However, when he approached the City for licensing, he was informed that the only way for him and other vendors to sell food on private land would be for each to secure take-out food licenses and demobilize their carts — effectively turning each vendor into a miniature restaurant that could be regulated like tenants in a normal commercial building.

Gerson argued the problem wasn’t any particular resistance to his idea by L&I, but rather that the department simply didn’t have rules in place to address the concept of a food pod.

Instead of giving up, Gerson and the PMFA got to work with Councilmember Mark Squilla on the new set of ordinances that they hope will govern the city’s rapidly growing herd of vendors. “Everyone we’ve spoken to in the Health Department, L&I, and City Council have all been proactive,” said Gerson. “It’s just going to take a little time.” A spokesperson for the City Planning Commission, the agency that would have to sign off on any proposed ordinances affecting to the zoning code, confirmed that the idea “had not been looked at yet, but seemed interesting.”

In the meantime, Gerson’s group is focusing on outreach to build more public support for Philly food pods. Fear of competition from restaurant owners is typically the greatest form of public opposition to long term or permanent food pod locations. Restaurateurs in San Francisco have gone as far as actively petitioning against attempts to expand vending slots in that city’s downtown, something the PFMA hopes to avoid.

“We’re working with community groups and business associations to promote this business model to individuals and vendors,” said Gerson. “If it’s presented properly it doesn’t make sense to oppose it. All we’re doing is attracting more people to areas that can use more food traffic and increased food choice.”

Last month, the PMFA hosted a proof-of-concept event at a vacant lot in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown neighborhood that was attended by over 3,000 people. All 18 participating food carts had sold out by the end of the night, further demonstrating public demand for greater food options in Philadelphia.

“We have a culture of [food] trucks in our city that’s been there for years,” Gerson said. “But the quality and culinary styles haven’t matched what the city wants, and now that’s changing.”

Ryan Briggs is an investigative reporter based in Philadelphia. He has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia Magazine and Hidden City.

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Tags: philadelphiaurban planningeconomic developmentblightportlandfood desertsfood trucks

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