Farragut Square is a classic, austere Washington, D.C., park with much landscaping and statuary but few amenities for actual people. It does at least have a lot of benches, which come in handy during the typical weekday. Come noontime, hundreds of local office workers swarm, blinking, into the sunlight, desperate for sustenance, and run headlong into bounteous providence: a veritable armada of food trucks.
It varies by the day, but Farragut typically has among the densest truck congregations in the city. When I visited last, in the space of 50 feet I could choose between a half-dozen curries, steak sandwiches, tacos, Korean barbecue — and kebabs, lots of kebabs.
But these trucks may not be here for long. The D.C. City Council is currently considering new regulations that would curtail, potentially drastically, the number of trucks allowed in much of the district.
It’s a familiar story. Similar fights have unfolded in several other cities. But this time some Big Name Conservatives have spied an opportunity to get young, urban voters onto the anti-government bandwagon. (Mitt Romney losing 18- to 29-year-old voters by 24 points would tend to focus the mind.) As they see it, these humble taco-delivery systems are just the thing to demonstrate the tyrannical, hungering grasp of Big Government.
“What they need is for people to see this and say, ‘I’m on the side of the people that the government is messing with,’” none other than Grover Drown-The-Government-In-The-Bathtub Norquist told National Journal.
D.C.’s proposed rules would deem certain places (like Farragut Square) “mobile vending zones,” with a to-be-determined number of slots allotted for trucks, which would be given out in a lottery. Truck operators who lose the lottery would be forced to park at least 500 feet away from these zones, and only in metered spots with 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk. Given the layout of these zones, this would effectively ban food trucks from almost all of downtown D.C.
There are some good reasons to update these regulations. Food trucks now are technically regulated under the “ice cream rule,” for example, which says that they can only operate with an active line of customers — and many have thus racked up a boatload of tickets.
But notably missing from the discussion is any rationale for restricting the supply of food trucks. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (the local restaurant lobby) is a major supporter, as local restaurateurs would like as little competition as possible. Kathy Hollinger, the association’s president, told the Washington Examiner she would like to see a maximum of two to three trucks on each side of a block. (To be fair, several prominent D.C. restaurant owners did sign a letter in support of the trucks.)
However, the restrictionists have stirred up a backlash from, among others, a few of those coveted young people. A recent city council meeting to was jammed with food-truck supporters, partly organized through the trucks’ social media outfits. (Red Hook Lobster, for example, sports over 25,000 Twitter followers.) Even students from nearby George Washington University took a break from their Versailles levels of wretched opulence to mobilize in favor of the trucks. “These proposed regulations will halt a growing sector of the D.C. economy and damage the choice of GW students,” Ryan Counihan of the GW Student Association said at the meeting.
This would be easy to mock, but the thing is, Counihan has a point. D.C. really is a morass of goofy regulations in some areas, and not just with the trucks. The combination of NIMBY politics, the 1910-vintage Height Act, the city’s notoriously dysfunctional zoning process, and a hyper-aggressive historical preservation movement has made it extraordinarily difficult to build new housing in the district. As a result, D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the nation.
A bit of good old deregulatory fervor in this city would be a nice counterweight in favor of new businesses and more housing, not to mention the salutary effect a bit of political competition might have in a city that usually runs more than 90 percent Democratic.
Unfortunately for Norquist and his brigade of newfound food truck enthusiasts, they’re running into the social headwinds of a party shot through with knuckle-dragging troglodytes. Young people are disproportionately diverse and overwhelmingly pro-gay marriage, but the GOP recently had a very public fight over whether immigration reform would leech $6.3 trillion from the economy by letting in a bazillion useless parasites, and nominated a man for Virginia lieutenant governor who said there was a “direct connection” between being gay and pedophilia. (He also fought desegregation.)
Continuing the grand tradition of outreach failures, the conservative Washington Times columnist George Farrell speculates that the food trucks might be a haven for terrorists. There’s a sure way to get their patrons on your side!
In any case, though the latest version of the new regulations looked like they would leave the trucks’ business model largely intact, the furor over them may delay their deployment yet again — and it has already been more than a year since the city council decided to update things. The council has until June 22 to vote, though according to DCist’s Benjamin Freed, who has been covering this story religiously, the odds don’t look good for making that deadline. After all, if there’s one thing in character for D.C., it’s accomplishing nothing.