Alameda Gives Green Light to Mobile Food

Plus the status of Jack London Square Market.



Last week the City of Alameda quietly passed one of the Bay Area's most permissive mobile food ordinances, opening up virtually every city street to food trucks. The only major restrictions are a ban on parking 25 feet from crosswalks, 50 feet from driveways, or on the same block as elementary or middle schools while in session. Five off-street locations are also approved: Alameda Point, the College of Alameda, South Shore Shopping Center, Harbor Bay Business Park, and Marina Village Business Park.

"There is a new generation of food trucks offering exciting and innovative menus," said Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore in a press release, sounding a bit like a time traveler from 2009.

Previously, Alameda had virtually no mobile food regulations. The few trucks that sometimes parked in the city — like Oakland-based Jon's Street Eats and Get Goes Mobile Cafe — operated in something of a legal gray area. Now these and any other vendors will need to obtain encroachment permits to park in public spaces, or conditional use permits for private areas. The ordinance also requires food trucks to obtain city business licenses, all appropriate health and safety inspections, and pay taxes like their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Markedly absent are rules about parking near restaurants, or procedures that allow neighbors to lodge complaints and hold public hearings (unlike the painfully protracted notification process in San Francisco or in Oakland's new temporary regulations). Alameda Development Manager Eric Fonstein said there was some business community pushback, but that restaurant owners were generally reasonable.

Now that citywide mobile food is officially sanctioned, the question remains: Will trucks come? There is already mobile food at big events like the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, but what about day-to-day operations? Alameda may not have the population or workforce density of other Bay locales, but underserved spots like the Harbor Bay Business Park may prove to have vendor allure. Time will tell.

The new ordinance went into effect February 6. The city will review it in early 2013 to address any major issues that may have arisen.

Jack London Square Market

Long presumed dead in the water, plans for the Jack London Square Market resurfaced last week with an announcement in the San Francisco Business Times that the market's focus would shift from food retail to manufacturing. As it turns out, it's mostly a semantic shift.

Jim Ellis, president of property owner Ellis Partners, envisions five to ten combined retail and production operations, similar to Acme Bread in San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace. Seeing that this kind of mixed-use business has always been the role model for the Jack London market, the plans haven't changed all that much. The biggest change is a shift to the well-worn foodie lexicon du jour; Ellis favors the term "artisanal food production" to manufacturing.

"We're trying to keep things current and relevant," said Ellis in a phone interview last week. "These are the thriving food businesses that the city of Oakland really needs right now."

Ellis and company have been banging the drum on their market concept for years now, with opening dates pushed back enough times to make skeptics out of the staunchest optimists. The recent opening of Daniel Patterson's long-awaited Haven restaurant is being heralded as a sign of the market building's revitalization, but a nighttime dining destination won't necessarily draw the businesses Ellis needs (Haven may expand to lunch hours this year).

The market building has just over 170,000 square feet total. This is split into somewhere between 62,000 and 95,000 square feet of retail space (Ellis' PR firm gave conflicting figures), with the remaining square footage earmarked as office space. The office space is roughly half leased, but there are still no retail tenants in the building besides Haven.

Ellis points to the recently opened Baia Pasta at nearby 431 Water Street and Miette at 85 Webster Street (both Ellis-owned mixed-use properties) as evidence of the artisanal food revolution in Jack London Square. Belcampo Meats also has an office nearby, but owner Anya Fernald said the company has no intention of opening retail or production centers in the area.

While these food businesses, as well as restaurants like Haven and Bocanova, certainly give the neighborhood a boost, it hasn't enticed anyone to take the bait on the market building. Ellis Partners is even offering attractive investment capital to food startups — in conjunction with nebulous "community organizations" — but has failed to seed the pot. Two other 30,000-square foot, Ellis-owned retail properties in Jack London Square also remain vacant, apparently while the developer attempts to bring in a high-end grocer like Whole Foods.

So the aspiration to create a fancy food critical mass, with the market as a centerpiece, remains stalled. Ellis cites the difficult economy and "issues with Occupy Oakland" as reasons for the difficulties. "Times have been tough," he said, "but we remain on track to create a thriving hub for food businesses." It's very similar rhetoric to nearly five years ago — hard to believe then, harder to believe now.