Foodcarts and development: A movable feast
No matter how many hungry customers show up this summer, the days are numbered for the Alder Street food cart pod, the central city's largest such culinary congregation.
A 35-story tower featuring a five-star hotel as well as offices and apartments is set to be constructed on this block, bookended by Southwest Ninth and 10th Avenues, starting later this year.
Though it's really just a surface parking lot, the Alder Street pod is a destination. From fish and chips at The Frying Scotsman cart to Chinese Jian Bing sandwiches at the Bing Mi and Polish golabki (stuffed cabbage — my personal favorite) at Eurodish, the carts collectively offer more culinary and cultural diversity in one city block than arguably anywhere else in Portland.
Like all food carts, I also admire their low-budget but often imaginatively improvised architecture. That they're all small local business startups (many of them run by hard-working immigrants) is also particularly welcome in the downtown core, where mammoth corporate chains are plentiful: a delicious David-over-Goliath dining option. I'll take the La Jarochita cart over Jimmy John's every time.
Although many cite TV's "Portlandia" as the moment when America and the world began to take notice (for better or worse) of our city's quirky charms, I'd actually argue it was the explosion of food carts in the 2000s. When the Washington Post named Portland America's number-one food city in 2015, it was because of this citywide constellation of more than 500 food carts as much as it was for James Beard Award-winning chefs.
They often appear individually, but clustered together they often become special places and quasi communities, such as the Cartopia food cart pod at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne.
Given how the tower (currently known as Block 216) will drive the food carts from 10th and Alder, it may be tempting to lament its construction. That the design by GBD Architects is aesthetically bland (at least in its current form, as shown to the Design Commission in renderings) doesn't help. Yet it would be a mistake to associate food carts with any one location for too long. By their very nature, they are meant to be nomadic. And that's good for Portland.
Even after decades with our urban growth boundary curbing sprawl, there has remained a higher percentage of developable land in central-city Portland than you'd find in the cores of neighboring metropolises like San Francisco or Seattle. The city of Portland's Buildable Lands Inventory shows scores of close-in parcels that could house food-cart pods.
Looking to vacant lots or parking lots for higher and better uses, food cart pods are just one temporary option. Given the affordable housing crisis and the city's ever-growing population, more residences are really what's most needed. Yet food carts play a different role: introducing urban vitality and cultural diversity to under-utilized pieces of land, which in turn can actually help seed economic development. Food cart pods don't just give us dining options: they transform how we think of the land they temporarily occupy.
There will come a time in 20 or 30 years when there just isn't enough vacant land left in the central city for food carts to cluster together. Until then, let's enjoy food carts for what they are: Portland's signature movable feast.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com