So now what? With downtown’s pods bustling, and new carts propagating across the East Side, do we just let this benign anarchy grow unchecked as far as it will? Or should we play around with new ways to harness this spontaneous expression of urban vitality (and chocolate-sandwich lust)?
Back in the 1970s, faced with a dying downtown, Portland declared that all center-city construction had to include ground-floor retail. It was a good idea, and one that injected new energy into our streets. But as the recession has filled many a city code–commanded storefront window with "FOR LEASE" signs, it’s the once-barren—and oft-ridiculed—surface parking lots that have begun pulsing with urban life in the form of food carts.
"The carts’ success downtown has people thinking of these sorts of structures as an interim form of development that can create a destination," says Marcy McInelly, an associate principal at Sera Architects. "Traditional restaurants do that, but it takes a long time. Carts can do it very quickly."
City Center Parking, a firm owned partly by the powerful Goodman family, rules acres of downtown asphalt. For decades, many mourned the Goodmans’ reluctance to develop their lots into the sort of high-density, mixed-use new buildings that long ago became urban-planning gospel. Now, economic conditions strongly suggest that new downtown high-rises won’t be popping up anytime soon. Meanwhile, City Center has decided—call it enlightened self-interest—to allow carts to breed on its lots.
"It started with one, basically," says Al Niknabard, City Center’s director of operations. "Then it was two. Then four. And it seemed like the more we added, the better they all did." Niknabard declines to even estimate how many carts now occupy the edges of City Center’s lots. "We hardly ever have cancellations. It will go as far as classical capitalism will let it."
Yet, it’s hard not to wonder: what could a smash-hit cart pod, complete with a cheerful local vibe and a foodie cult following, do for some of Portland’s persistently forlorn neighborhoods? Could an Airstream slinging post-Vietnamese Southeast Asian fusion do more for Lents than any half-baked baseball stadium scheme? Should we just retire the cursed name "Burnside Bridgehead" and encourage every successful downtown cart to open a second location at NE Couch Street and Third Avenue?