New Haven’s top economic development official apologized not once, but twice, to two food-truck operators for how the city displaced them from their accustomed spots—then promised to make it easier for the mobile-food business to thrive in town.
“Mistakes were made ... We realized that within a couple of hours,” said Economic Development Administrator Matt Nemerson on the latest episode of WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync.” Nemerson was joined in the studio with Caseus’ Jason Sobocinski and Ay! Arepa’s Ernesto Garcia.
The city booted Sobocinski and Garcia from two longstanding downtown spots the morning of Oct. 15 because it turns out they were operating food trucks in residential zones, a no-no under city law. The city hadn’t previously enforced that law; the city’s building department is in the midst of a citywide crackdown on violations.
The swift dislodgment of the food outlets prompted protests, in part over the fact that the operators weren’t given warning. Some people also argued that zoning rules should change to allow food carts and trucks on downtown blocks where people happen to live.
“The mayor called us all together. She said: ‘This is not the way we treat people, This is not the way my administration rolls. Let’s get out there, let’s explain what we’re doing, and let’s meet with peoplem,’” Nemerson said. “We have to figure this out ... We’ve learned our lesson about communicating. I apologize for not treating people that day the way maybe we should have.”
Nemerson didn’t apologize for the fact that the city was enforcing the law, but rather for the manner it which it carried it out in this case. He also noted that the city helped Garcia find a new legal spot 200 feet away from which to operate.
On Oct. 15 the building department was enforcing Article III, Section 16, line H of the city’s 91-year-old zoning ordinance, which governs downtown’s residential or RH-2 zones. For vendors and citizens who have not read through the “300-page” zoning ordinance and city plan, Nemerson clarified, those zones are defined as any streets that have Yale dormitories on them. (Residential zones are also enforced in all of the city’s neighborhoods, but follow different sections of the zoning ordinances.)
That was the beginning of a conversation that is still unfolding. Vendors were mad. So were city officials. Rumors circulated that snitching small business and brick-and-mortar restaurants were to blame; others jumped to blame Yale. (City Building Officials said competing vendors actually file the most complaints, against vendors who don’t follow rules.) Some agreed in the Independent’s comment section that it was just the city playing catch up on a neglected laws. In the WNHH studio, two questions were up for debate: Whether the city’s delivery of that news was done correctly on Oct. 15. And whether those zones will be renegotiated before the next fiscal year begins on July 1, 2016.
To the first, Nemerson conceded when pressed, the answer was a resounding no.
“We should have figured out a way to roll it out over a week. We should have done it differently,” he said near the beginning of the episode. “There were a lot of other ways we could have handled it, I’ll take full responsibility for that ... when government gets crazy, we have to explain it in a way that everyone can understand it.”
“I apologize. We won’t do that again,” he added when Sobocinski called for a public apology.
“The way that this was handled and delivered is what I want to speak about,” Sobocinski persisted. “Someone from the building department, an inspector, cut the line and handed Billy [Wallen] and Adam [Major] — those were the two guys that have been working on my truck for about six years — a packet of papers and said: ‘Can you do me a favor and read line H out loud for me?’ in a very condescending tone. They had absolutely no idea what this was about. They went ahead and read the line out loud about residential parking spots. They were very confused. The inspector then informed them that they were in a spot that was not legal, and that they would have to wrap it up, essentially.
“To be treated like that when we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing as far as we know really put a bad taste in our mouths ... The way we were treated was not the way we want New Haven to be presented as a place to do business.”
Sobocinski notedthat the truck has lost substantial revenue in the two weeks it’s been off College Street.
Garcia estimated that he has lost 70 percent of his customer base despite a new, legal parking spot on the southwest corner of York and Elm, a half-block from his previous spot on the northeast corner. (You can read about that move here.)
“Right now it’s really quiet, I lost like 70 percent of my customers. Right now they’re trying to figure that out, how they can find me,” he said. “It’s not easy to start a food truck — you have to invest a lot of time, a lot of money.”
8 Months For Grilled Cheese
In addition to sharing their sides of the food truck debate, Garcia, Sobocinski and Nemerson discussed possible solutions, Nemerson maintaining that the city never intended to hurt the trucks in its sudden crackdown.
“We are reviewing the zoning in parts of downtown, and we want to do more of it. That’s an aldermanic function; that’s actually not an executive branch function in terms of making these kinds of decisions. We’re gonna have to jump on this right away,” he said.
The bad news? That’s going to take time.
Not everyone’s happy with that.
“We can only do these things on certain cycles, and we believe that from a permitting cycle, July 1 is the proper way to introduce these new things, because people buy permits that are annual and follow the fiscal year,” Nemerson said. “I think realistically that we hope for both improvements to the physical site on the Long Wharf and coming up with new ways to think through permanent or semipermanent designated spaces for food trucks downtown ... I think we’re going to have a whole plan ... I think we’ll probably roll something out by July 1. I think we’ll be lucky to have something out by that time frame.”
“The law is archaic,” Sobocinski countered. “I think there are laws on the Green that allow you to graze animals still. [That was actually banned in 1824, but you can still have six hens on a residential property for noncommercial use, and grazing is allowed in some “costal management districts.”] ... I think that we need to reevaluate these zones and think about where we want people out on the streets. I’m not just talking about food trucks. I’m talking about where we want people and vibrancy out on the streets. We don’t have a ton of time before it gets cold, and then we’re really going to take a hit.”
“I wish that I could tell a customer that they could wait eight months for a grilled cheese,” Sobocinski added of the July 1 estimation. “I would like to know a very solid reasoning to a law, and if there isn’t one, except for ‘it’s on the books,’ I think there should be a very clear and swift change to it. Eight months is, in my mind, absurd, and does not create a positive and welcoming business environment. I would love to see something happening really soon.”
Nemerson suggested that the city is trying as quickly as it can.
“We have to change that particular prohibition [line H],” he said. “We have to make it possible, and we have to do it throughout the entire city, and we have to look at the impact ... of a street that was an RH-2 zone. And they would have to say: ‘Yes, I don’t mind having a food truck here.’ Maybe what we could do is create different kinds of areas where we would have an overlay, and we would say: ‘At the corner of Wall and High [Streets], or at the corner of Wall and this particular area on College Street, we’re going to create a special vending zone.‘ There may be other ways around this ... We have to think this thing through.”
That — paired with the economic czar’s promise that “we’re all in this together” — caught Sobocinski’s ear.
“That, to me, sounds perfect,” he said.
To listen to the full episode, click on the audio above. You can also find it available for download in Soundcloud, iTunes, or any podcatcher under “WNHH Community Radio.”