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Editorial: Charleston should restrict hours, locations for downtown food trucks

JUMP Booze Pops (copy) (copy)

Booze Pops owner Woody Norris is one of the business owners who are concerned about a proposed ordinance in Charleston that would block food carts along King Street from operating within 100 feet of a restaurant. Brad Nettles/Staff

Any successful commercial street has a mix of businesses that re-enforce each other by providing many choices along a compact, walkable space. That’s certainly the case with Charleston’s King Street, but as the city works to address a recent crime wave related to the street’s boisterous late-night scene, it makes sense to prioritize businesses that operate out of buildings over those that operate out of a truck.

We urge City Council to approve new restrictions on food carts that would require them to shut down by 1 a.m. and give police more authority to act if a cart’s location could lead to crowding and conflict on the sidewalks.

We’re not surprised that some food cart vendors don’t like the idea, but it’s a fair and reasonable step, especially as the city works to address the increasingly dangerous crowds that have congregated on and near the street and in the early morning hours, especially on weekends. The ordinance would apply only to the city’s Central Business District, roughly bounded by Broad, King, St. Philip, Line and Meeting streets.

The least controversial step is the mandatory 1 a.m. closing. The city previously allowed bars to remain open all night, but excess rowdiness prompted City Council to set a 2 a.m. closing time, a move quickly adopted by several nearby municipalities that didn’t want to become new hosts for an all-night bar scene. If fixed businesses must close by 2 a.m., it makes sense to require food vendors to close around that time, too.

State law says little about food vendors, aside from their need to be inspected and licensed by state health officials. Many municipalities set distance minimums between the trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants, and require permission from property owners where food trucks operate, said Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Those distance restrictions reduce competition with establishments housed in buildings, which by their nature are more permanent fixtures. City Councilman Peter Shahid said Charleston’s distance rule would be a way to prevent lines for the mobile vendors from intersecting with patrons lined up to get into restaurants and bars. That’s a worthy goal, one recommended by police and patterned after an ordinance in Greenville. Importantly, food vendors would be able to operate within 100 feet of a restaurant if the restaurant agrees to it.

We agree with Councilman Jason Sakran, a restaurateur, that the vendors actually benefit downtown. They provide an important option for entrepreneurs who don’t have the means to open at a permanent location. But these restrictions on food vendors are a reasonable, necessary step toward controlling the unruly late-night scene. If they also help protect businesses with an actual King Street address, that’s OK, too.

After all, one of the biggest concerns about King Street — aside from its raucous nature that can turn dangerous — is its number of vacant storefronts. As COVID-19 recedes, the street often seems as busy as ever, but pedestrians have returned faster than businesses willing to fill empty spaces where older ones no longer exist.

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