The Portland Phoenix

Keep on truckin’ or not?: Portland may limit food trucks on popular Eastern Promenade

Jordan Rubin and Marisa Lewiecki, co-owners of Mr. Tuna

Jordan Rubin and Marisa Lewiecki, co-owners of Mr. Tuna, with the food truck that's now a fixture on Portland's Eastern Promenade. Whether Mr. Tuna and other food trucks will be allowed to continue to do business on the prom may be about to change. (Courtesy Catherine Dzilenski)

After complaints from nearby residents, Portland may slash the number of food trucks allowed on the Eastern Promenade or prohibit them entirely from the scenic Munjoy Hill street.

The city may also end up with a lottery to award business permits to the truck operators, meaning licenses would be up for grabs.

The changes were proposed to the City Council Sustainability and Transportation Committee last week, with the suggestion that a pilot program could be conducted April 15-Oct. 15. But City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin this week said “we will not have a new plan in place by (April 15) – I don’t have an exact date yet for making a decision. But once a decision is made there are things that will need to be done in order to prep.” 

Portland may eliminate parking on the west side of the Eastern Promenade, right, and push the travel lanes to that curb to create more space for fewer food trucks on the east side of the street. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Alex Marshall, the city’s parks director, said the proposals are the result of residents’ complaints over the last few years about noise and traffic, and the impact food trucks have had on the neighborhood. At a busy time of the year, he said, there may be as many as 15 trucks on the promenade, each of them running generators for several hours a day.

The plans would also benefit the trees along the promenade, several of which now have exposed root systems because of foot traffic lured by the food trucks. 

One tactic would give food trucks and their patrons more room by revising the flow of traffic on the Eastern Promenade, with a parking ban on the residential, west side of the street and the travel lanes moved toward that curb.

The traffic changes would be discontinued when the food truck season ends.

Another proposal, which didn’t get councilors’ support but was favored by several neighbors, would move the trucks to Cutter Street, below the Eastern Promenade, where there is now a parking lot for boat trailers.

The plan to alter traffic was considered “a fairly bold option,” Marshall said. In particular, changing the travel and parking lanes, he said, would hopefully reduce the number of people crossing the street or make them more visible to drivers. He also said it would essentially create enough space for small food courts between the parked food trucks.

Cutter Street, which leads from the Eastern Promenade to a parking lot and the boat launch below, could become Portland’s designated space for food trucks. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Regardless of the plan that is chosen, Marshall said the city’s goal is to address concerns about trash and provide the trucks with a power source so they can stop using generators.

He said the city will install four in-ground 300-gallon trash containers on the promenade to replace existing 20- and 30-gallon bins, which are now emptied twice a day. The larger containers will only have to be emptied once a month; Marshall said the city has already purchased them using American Rescue Plan Act funds.

He also said it would be easier to run power to the existing location than it would be to provide electricity on Cutter Street. 

Reducing the number of trucks

But regardless of which plan is ultimately chosen, the net result will be fewer food trucks.

Last year, there were up to 15 trucks lining the promenade at peak times; Marshall said the new limit would be seven trucks along the promenade and perhaps five if the city decides to use Cutter Street.

There may also be the possibility of a hybrid option that employs both streets, along with a lottery to award business licenses.

A standby generator provides power to a food truck on the Eastern Promenade in Portland. Nearby residents say food trucks produce too much noise and trash. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

However, Councilor Andrew Zarro, who chairs the sustainability committee, said he would like to see more trucks allowed to operate on the promenade. Zarro said he is “open to being creative,” since food truck operators have not had time to anticipate the proposed changes. 

The committee’s recommendation will be communicated to the City Council, but the council will not determine what is done.

Grondin, the City Hall spokesperson, said changes can be enacted unilaterally by interim City Manager Danielle West, who has not made a decision. She said the city wants feedback from the sustainability committee and the Housing and Economic Development Committee before moving forward.

Ethan Hipple, the director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said the city is aware of the economic impact the changes could have on truck operators, but the goal is to reduce the trucks’ carbon footprint.

“We have not settled on how,” he said.

‘You don’t own the ocean or the hill’

In last week’s meeting, several Eastern Promenade residents advocated for moving the trucks to Cutter Street. Many said the trucks are so loud and polluting that they can’t keep their windows open or sit on their decks in the summer.

Others, however, said the loss of parking on one side of the street would only further burden the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, which is already strapped for residential parking.

Josh Dionne, at the window of his Tacos del Seoul food truck, said changing where food trucks are allowed would be challenging for many owners who have already made plans, including hiring staff, to be on the Eastern Promenade all summer. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Joseph Napolitano, one of the neighbors who spoke, said people who pay thousands of dollars in property taxes each year shouldn’t have their Casco Bay views obstructed by the food trucks. He said the trucks create odors and noise pollution and generate trash that has led to more rodents in the area.

He said moving the trucks to Cutter Street is the best option, especially since the traffic-altering Eastern Promenade plan would eliminate 30 parking spaces.

“It’s best to go with something amenable to everybody,” Napolitano said.

Others advocated for moving the trucks to other parts of the city, arguing it isn’t the promenade that makes them successful.

Those who spoke in favor of the traffic-altering proposal, including Arcadia National Bar co-owner Dave Aceto, said the Eastern Promenade is a good spot for people to gather because it is a public park. He said Portland is a city, not a small town, and therefore it is reasonable to have institutions that attract people.

“To the people across the street,” he said, referring to the Eastern Promenade residents, “you don’t own the ocean or the hill.”

‘People will be scrambling’

While it’s still early in the year, and certainly still possible for winter-like weather, food trucks are already out on the Eastern Promenade.

In an interview, Jordan Rubin, who co-owns the Mr. Tuna truck, said his business is there seven days a week all year long, weather permitting.

During the pandemic, he said, the Eastern Promenade became a good spot to serve customers who were apprehensive about dining indoors.

“It’s a big part of our business now, and honestly, during the beginning of the pandemic and going forward, it had a big part in keeping us afloat during a rough time when our restaurant was closed,” Rubin said.

He also said he supports keeping the trucks where they are, even if it means some limitations. 

“It’s such an attraction now that the city had to address it, it was kind of the elephant in the room,” Rubin said. “I think they’re doing a heck of a job with the plan. Just making something out of the situation, using the resources of the city.”

Josh Dionne, who owns the Tacos del Seoul food truck, was on the Eastern Promenade last Friday and said changing where the food trucks are situated would be challenging for many business owners who have already made plans to be on the promenade all summer, and who have likely already hired staff with that plan in mind.

He said “people will be scrambling” if there are changes that limit operations, not to mention uncertainty about how the business licenses will be awarded.

Marshall had said the city may explore letting businesses combine for applications so that two or more could share a permit and split the time on the promenade.

Dionne said something like that could work, assuming the city still ensures there is a good mix of the offerings available.

Uncertainty, however, remains the biggest question.

“Everyone was freaking out if they need alternate plans,” Dionne said. “No one knows what will happen.”

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