The first mobile food court in Biddeford could open as soon as this summer now that city officials have resolved zoning and access issues that could have halted the project.
The idea for The Lot, which would feature a rotating array of four or five food trucks and carts on vacant land downtown, was first pitched nearly a year ago.
Last week, city council approved an easement needed to allow access to the land at 64 Alfred Street, which is only accessible via two city-owned parking spaces at the rear of the property. The council previously approved adding language to the city ordinance to allow mobile food courts in the downtown and factory districts.
Steve Liautaud, who worked in the restaurant industry for 30 years before moving to Maine, first approached the city last spring with his idea to transform the vacant downtown lot since the building that stood there was destroyed by fire in 2006. He sees the location, which is crossed by people driving towards Main Street on Alfred Street, as the gateway to downtown of Biddeford.
He says it’s the perfect place to create an upscale outdoor venue that will tap into the local enthusiasm for food trucks and bring more people downtown.
The mobile food court would be a first for Biddeford and would reflect the growing popularity of food trucks in the area. Congdon’s After Dark food truck park, which opened in 2017, attracts thousands of visitors to Wells each summer.
The Lot food court will situate the changing roster of food trucks and carts around a central dining area covered by a canopy. Liautaud is looking for an operator to sell beer, wine and food from a small building he plans to build there.
Food truck operators will set up daily in a pod that will provide them with electricity, water, gray water and an oil dump. To meet Biddeford’s restaurant parking requirements, food court employees will park in spaces that Liautaud has secured at Paul’s Variety.
Before Liautaud could go ahead with the project, the city had to deal with both the issue of access and outdated ordinances. City officials supported his concept, but the zoning ordinance provided no guidance on how to regulate a mobile food court. The council’s first step was to add language to city ordinances to allow food trucks to operate downtown.
Discussions about the project quickly made it clear that the city’s zoning ordinances needed to be updated more to make more sense and reflect what’s happening in the food truck industry, city officials said. City regulations for food trucks and carts were written for a different era, when mobile canteen trucks pulled up outside mills to feed workers, and have been changed in recent years to trucks ice cream shops that travel all over town. Further updates are likely as Biddeford conducts a more extensive rewrite of the zoning ordinance.
After The Lot’s design was approved, the city still had to figure out how to get food trucks onto the lot. It was not possible, city officials said, to do so with curbs at the intersection of Alfred and Pool streets.
The easement drafted by the city attorney and approved by council grants access to two of the currently marked parking spots for free two-hour parking on the Franklin Street Extension that runs between Louis’s Pizza and Jefferson Street. The planning board will have final approval of which two places are used.
City officials have been excited about the potential benefits of The Lot for Biddeford.
“The ability to change food cart operators daily will provide a mix of food options for the community,” Mathew Eddy, the city’s director of planning and development, wrote in a memo to council ahead of the vote on the bondage of March 15. “The food court can provide a unique attraction to the downtown food industry and fuel subsequent redevelopment of the city. ”
Liautaud said the project is “designed and ready to go”, but finding a contractor capable of taking on the project in the coming months could prove difficult as construction companies are particularly busy at the moment. He put the project up for auction last week.
“We’re hoping someone comes back and says they can do it by this summer so we can get it in place,” he said. If not, he will aim to open it in the fall or next year.
His plan is to keep it open half of each year, from May 1 to Halloween, and he said he could use the space to create a seasonal experience on the grounds over the winter holidays.
As for his thoughts on The Lot’s food and rotating schedule, he plans to remain flexible.
“My goal is to let it take on its own personality, whatever that looks like,” he said.
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