Mobile Food Pods Revitalize Neighborhoods

New pod at McCobbin/Valencia, Mission District
Revised 9/3/12. Originally posted August 2010

Other articles in the series:
            Portland Food Trucks
            Off the Grid in San Francisco

In July (2010) I had written about Off the Grid (OtG) in San Francisco. This is where a bunch of street food vendors congregate at Fort Mason every Friday night from 5-9. Each week the word of mouth grew and grew so that it now sees upward of 5,000 people a night. The success of Fort Mason allowed SF Cart Project’s Matt Cohen to open other locations.  As of September 2012, Off the Grid now has events at over 20 locations throughout the Bay area.

This last One location, McCoppin Hub, is the one we need to take note of because it becomes the first temporary mobile food ‘pod’ in San Francisco, modeled after the pods in Portland, Oregon. (New permanent pod, SOMA Streat Food Park, visited in this August 2012 post.) Mobile food pods are becoming an important consideration in the growth of street food popularity across America. Why? Because they revitalize neighborhoods!

One of Portland's neighborhood pods

What is a mobile food pod? Think of it as food court (like in a mall) but on otherwise vacant piece of property consisting of street food vendors. For instance, in the one I stumbled upon in downtown Portland, there were 22 vendors along the edges of a parking lot.

Portland, the capital of street food in the U.S., has pods not just downtown, but in other neighborhoods in the city as well. In fact, they see it as a way to revitalize struggling neighborhoods. On Mississippi Street, for example, there were a lot of problems with drugs and prostitution. As the neighborhood started to change a pod opened up. Prostitution has disappeared and crime has been on the decrease.

I talked to Alma Flores, a Portland Economic Planner, and she has recently been reviewing crime statistics for neighborhoods. They’ve seen a definite decrease in crime in the neighborhoods with pods. She says that the increased public traffic means that there are more eyes on the street (a la neighborhood watch). Street vendors are keeping long hours in their establishments and are always watching and reporting so that crime has fled those areas.
The pods become happening places where people gather for a bite. This increase in social gathering gives the neighborhood a sense of community. Pods have become so popular that now property owners advertise for vendors to come and please occupy a space! After all, if an owner owns a vacant lot somewhere, it’s not generating any revenue. Vacancy equals $0. By adding vendors, they can now generate rent and get some return on an otherwise fund depleting property. Some owners have become so enthusiastic that they will invest some money to provide picnic tables, awnings for weather protection, porta potties, ATM machines, storage, and electricity hookups. What they get in return is a popular neighborhood hangout for people to go out and dine and socialize.

Madison, WI

Even Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, gets the pod concept! Suffering the same plight as Sacramento where everyone moved to the suburbs and downtown businesses began to die,  they, like us with K Street, turned their main streets into pedestrian malls. Soon craft cart vendors started businesses and it wasn't long before food carts started showing up. Now the mall is full of food carts and busy at all open hours.

Recently I talked to my food truck advocate counterpart in Austin, Texas. Next to Portland, Austin is the biggest food cart/trailer city in the nation. My associate told me that in Austin they have seen an increase in property values due to the food carts such that some of the property owners then turn around and sell them. Good for property values, not so good that the carts now have to find another location.

So back to McCoppin Hub. It has become the latest OtG site operating on a daily basis with two truck shifts, lunch and dinner. The lunch trucks run from 11:30-4:30 and then swap out with the dinner trucks who go from 5:30-10:30. This area had been plagued with “drug dealing and other shadiness”. OtG is there on a two month trial period after which The Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation has reviewed how it has done and is allowing it to continue for foreseeable future. They had previously been considering greening the area to make it more park-like. Cohen has been looking for other such locations around the city for other possible pods.

The new SOMA Streat Food Park is another wonderful example of revitalization. Located behind Costco and under a freeway, the triangular plot had been a homeless and addict encampment. Now the park is filled each evening with families - children, grandparents, the family dog. 

Another Portland pod

What could this mean for Sacramento? Off the top of my head I can think of four excellent locations for pods here:

            Downtown Plaza where the ice rink sets up in the winter
            Oak Park
            Del Paso
            Natomas around Northgate and West El Camino

Take Oak Park, for instance. They’ve made great strides by adding businesses such as Old Soul and the farmers market. A pod could be beneficial as well.

How often is the topic of revitalizing the K Street mall in the paper and in front of the City Council? All the time! Here is an easy way to bring some businesses and food lovers to an area.

Pods are working in other cities. They can work here too.  The key to pods and to mobile food trucks is to take the best examples and laws from these other cities and make them work here. We have the opportunity to make Sacramento an example of well thought out and planned street food vending. That will be the goal of SactoMoFo over the next few months.