Building boom displacing food-cart pods

By Elliot Njus / The Oregonian

PORTLAND — Portland gave the world the concept of the food-cart “pod” — clusters of mobile eateries stationed semi-permanently in parking lots.

Now, one by one, Portland is taking the pods back.

They’re starting to disappear in a development boom taking hold in the neighborhoods food carts helped popularize. As it turns out, the things that make food carts work — like heavy foot traffic and high visibility — also make them prime targets for redevelopment.

On Wednesday, The Oregonian reported the Cartopia food cart pod in Southeast Portland was under a sale contract and likely to become an apartment building. It’s the latest in a string of pods disappearing to make room for new construction.

“The food carts are what were helping to reinvent (neighborhoods like) Hawthorne,” said Gregg Abbott, who opened Whiffies Fried Pies at the Cartopia pod in 2009. “Now they’re all going away.”

The food cart pod is largely a Portland innovation. The city had more underused surface parking lots than others and a vibrant mobile-food scene, and rent from cart vendors could provide income for property owners during lean times.

On the city’s east side, pods multiplied in the post-recession years. Some locations didn’t work. Others thrived.

But now that prospects for development are brighter, a flourishing food-cart pod is increasingly attractive for other kinds of development.

D-street Noshery on Southeast Division was at the peak of its popularity when it closed in late 2012 to make way for apartments.

Last month, The Oregonian reported the owner of the North Station pod on North Killingsworth Street is contemplating building condos on the site.

Another, the Good Food Here pod on Southeast Belmont is under a sale contract. Eric Cress, principal of current owner Urban Development Partners, confirmed the contract but said complications have left the deal uncertain. If it goes through, he said, nothing would change until at least the fall.

Cress said his company has had “mixed feelings” about selling or redeveloping the pod, which produces enough income to cover costs and make a small profit.

Still, he said, “I wouldn’t bet on something like a food-cart pod existing for a long period of time.”

None of this is to suggest the food-cart pod is an endangered species. For one thing, west side pods are insulated by the higher cost and risk of developing in the city’s downtown core.

The Goodman family’s Downtown Development Group, which owns several of the largest downtown food-cart pods, says there’s no development planned on any of its sites. But even in those spots, they’re a temporary fixture.

“They’re an interesting use until something better comes along,” said Greg Goodman. “There’d be no food carts out there if the owner had to say this will be the use forever.”

On the east side, pods may prove to be more ephemeral. But developers don’t see them disappearing altogether there, either, as long as there are empty lots and neighborhoods on the upswing.

“There’s an opportunity for another landlord who’s going to see these three or four operators who need to land somewhere else,” said Craig Sweitzer of Urban Works Real Estate, who owns a food-cart pod in Portland’s Central Eastside. “The great thing about them is that they’re so flexible.”