Mobile restaurants or food trucks may soon be setting up shop in the vacant lot at the intersection of Palafox and Main Streets. At a public hearing held Tuesday afternoon, the City of Pensacola’s Planning Board voted unanimously to amend the city’s Land Development Code to allow such use.
At the meeting, Michael Carro, an owner of the vacant property at 501-503 South Palafox, presented a slideshow for the board that summarized the benefits of silver Airstream mobile units providing meals to people on the go in the downtown area. In his presentation, Carro called the concept “al fresco” dining and listed some of the benefits, such as providing walk-up food venues that promote more pedestrian activity, increasing exposure for all retailers, and allowing locals and visitors to enjoy a variety of menu options while complementing downtown development with a “hip” urban amenity. Carro likened the mobile restaurants to those in Seaside, like The Meltdown and Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs.
Carro and his partners in SOGO SPA, L.L.C. — Michael Murdock, Joel Smith, Doug Kreis, Neil Overholtz and Tom Rich — are in the process of renovating the building at 509 South Palafox for use as a restaurant in anticipation of cooperative use with the adjacent mobile units. In explaining his renovation, Carro advised the Board that councilman and CRA chair Brian Spencer, who was in the audience, was the architect for their building renovation.
The public hearing was legally required because of the proposed amendment to the city’s Land Development Code. Notice of the meeting appeared on February 7, in the PNJ’s Sports Section under the classifieds page which includes legal notices. While this qualifies as legally sufficient notice, according to Planning Services Administrator Sherry Morris, there was not the usual “Week Ahead” notice in the Sunday newspaper, nor in the “Meetings Today” section in Tuesday’s paper. Neither Morris nor newly appointed Community Redevelopment Agency Administrator Ryan Winterberg-Lipp could explain why the notices did not appear in Sunday’s or Tuesday’s editions of the News Journal. Former Councilwoman Diane Mack, who spoke in favor of the code amendment, said that she learned of the meeting by checking the city’s website, but pointed out that up until Friday afternoon, February 10, the web page for the planning board indicated no scheduled meetings for the upcoming week of February 12.
The Land Development Code amendment, which can be read online in the Planning Board’s meeting agenda, contains numerous restrictions on the use of the mobile restaurants or food trucks. The restrictions follow Carro’s concept for developing not only his vacant property at 501-503 South Palafox but also for developing his adjacent building at 509 South Palafox. The amendment incorporates Carro’s idea that the walk-up food venues would operate in cooperation with an existing brick and mortar restaurant, which would provide the restrooms for the customers of the mobile units. Among other restrictions, the amendment to the code requires that the Airstream-type restaurants operate “as an accessory to an adjacent existing and operational restaurant” that must provide the restrooms for the customers of the food trucks.
In addition to mandating an adjacent structural restaurant, the code amendment limits the size and number of the mobile units and requires that each unit be hooked up to the city’s sewer system and use underground utilities, not generators. There are also numerous landscaping, screening, and seating requirements in the amendment.
Most members of the audience at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in favor of the amendment. Those speaking in favor included the owners of two downtown restaurants — Blimpie and Hopjacks — who called the idea “pivotal” to continuing foot traffic across Main Street. The owner of The Meltdown, which sells grilled cheese sandwiches from a mobile restaurant in Seaside, told the Board that these restaurants would “add vibrancy to downtown Pensacola.” In addition, Carro stated in his presentation that Gus Silivos of Scenic 90 Cafe, Scott Amberson of Peg Leg Pete’s, and Lee Kafeety of Cactus Flower had expressed interest in the mobile restaurants.
Councilman Spencer spoke in favor of the amendment and told the board that Quint and Rishy Studer, who are renovating the two historic buildings on the north side of Main Street, likewise favored it.
Two attendees spoke against the code amendment. One was Walter Brown, who with his wife Sarah owned Sarah’s of Pensacola at 517 South Palafox and currently own the former Trader Jon’s building at 511 South Palafox, next door to Carro’s property. In a written memorandum, complete with twenty-two color photographs of all sorts of Airstream restaurants and food trucks, Brown presented the Planning Board with three reasons for not passing the Code amendment. Brown noted that since Carro had not completed the renovation of his restaurant building, the code amendment allowing food trucks was putting the “cart before the horse,” that a variance was a better solution than a code amendment, and that “Airstream trailers modified to deliver food at the window to mobile customers” did not belong on Palafox Street.
Morris addressed the variance versus code amendment issue and explained that a variance was not a solution given the complexity of the zoning and special districts associated with Palafox Street south of Main. Spencer, after putting on his CRA hat, also expressed confidence that the amendment was the right solution and would pass legal muster. He explained that in addition to the city’s planning department, the mayor’s office and the city attorney and others in the administration “in the floors above us” had a hand in considering and drafting the proposed code amendment before it was recommended for passage to the board.
The only other person to speak against the code amendment was Dolores Curry, president of the Belmont-Devilliers Neighborhood Association. Curry summed up her comments at the end by noting that “no matter how you dress it up, a trailer park is still a trailer park.”