Food trucks in Savannah? A case study of the old Sears parking lot

In my City Talk column on Sunday, I wrote about the restrictions in the city of Savannah’s first draft of a food truck ordinance.

Sure, sure, sure, city officials keep saying that it’s just a draft and that everything in the draft is open to discussion and revision.

But, really, why start the public discussion with a draft ordinance that many of us would consider draconian — a draft ordinance that is so restrictive that it virtually guarantees that individual entrepreneurs will not even take the risk of launching a food truck?

So let’s consider one specific property that has come up in multiple public discussions as one that would be perfect for food trucks: the parking lot of the old Sears/DFACS building. The official address of the building is 2 East Henry St., and the large parking lot — just under one acre — is bounded by Drayton, Henry, and Bull streets.

Why would that location be so good for food trucks?

  • It’s right in the middle of the city and gets a lot of traffic, including foot and bicycle traffic going north and south on Bull.
  • The property is currently underutilized.
  • There are four food service establishments nearby (Local 11 Ten, Betty Bombers, Brighter Day, and The Sentient Bean), but it’s hard to imagine any of those businesses seeing a decline in sales if there were also food trucks in the neighborhood. (Local, Betty’s, and The Bean also do significant sales at times of the day when food trucks would be unlikely to be in operation.)
  • The old Sears lot isn’t in a designated redevelopment corridor, but we’re seeing a resurgence in activity along Bull Street south of the park; food trucks could help spur interest and activity in the neighborhood.

Under the city’s initial draft ordinance, however, we would almost certainly never see food trucks in the old Sears parking lot.

The starting point would of course have to be the owner(s) of the site, who would have to expressly allow food trucks to set up shop there. Also, the food truck employees would, according to health codes, have to have nearby bathrooms.

Wait, why not let food trucks just park in the spaces on Henry Street immediately south of the Sears lot — in those spaces that no one even knows exists because no one ever even uses them? Well, the draft ordinance does not allow food trucks to vend on public property unless they are working under a special event permit.

But the problems for a would-be entrepreneur go far beyond that. Here are all the issues of which I am aware, but there could be even more:

  • The city’s map of proposed zoning districts for food trucks (see below) doesn’t even allow them in the 2-B district, the current zoning classification of the lot. Under the current draft of the NewZO, which city officials literally might not move forward for years, the zoning district would change to TC-2, so under that map the property would be zoned the same as some properties where food trucks would be allowed. Got that?
  • The lot dimensions on SAGIS indicate that the northwest corner of the Sears lot — the part closest to Bull Street and Forsyth Park — is less than 200 feet from the door of Local 11 Ten. So to set up in the most prime location in the lot, the owner of the food truck would have to get written permission from Local.
  • Perhaps as much as 1/3rd of the western portion of the lot is less than 200 feet from the apartments directly across Bull Street. Again the food truck owner would need written permission from the property owner.
  • A significant amount of the eastern portion of the lot is within 200 feet of residential properties on Henry Street and Drayton Street, so if a truck were set up there, the business owner would need permission from the owners of those residential properties.
  • Even if all the appropriate permissions were secured and the zoning were changed, the draft limits the number of food trucks in a given location to two per acre. The Sears parking lot is less than one acre (not by much, but I’m pretty sure it would be short), so that means that only one food truck could set up there, assuming that the zoning were changed and that all the other requirements were met. All that space — room for a dozen food trucks, easily — but only one would be allowed.

If you were a lender who was approached by a young entrepreneur with dreams of starting a food truck in Savannah, what would you decide about the loan once you realized all of the hoops that the truck would have to jump through?

Also, by the way, food trucks would have to meet applicable sign ordinances. The sign ordinance in the Historic District is fairly restrictive, and there are separate rules for both Broughton Street and River Street. So if the food truck were ever parked in those locations, the signage would have to conform to those separate ordinances (and presumably have to be approved under all those standards).

Here’s the map of where food trucks would be allowed, but please note that food trucks would be limited to private property, probably parking lots for the most part. Each of those lots would be subject to the provisions I’ve noted above.

Here is a map of the proposed food truck zones in Savannah.

Posted by Savannah Food Truck Association on Monday, September 7, 2015

Alderman Carol Bell apparently started pushing for a food truck ordinance when she was seated on City Council in early 2012. And this is our starting point for public discussion 3 1/2 years later?

I have no reason to think that city officials aren’t serious about crafting a viable ordinance and giving food trucks in Savannah to be successful, but this first draft is nowhere near the final ordinance we need.

The last of the currently scheduled public forums about food trucks is September 23 at Jacob G. Smith, 210 Lamara Drive at 5:30 p.m.