Aspen elected officials hungry for a food truck at Rio Grande
In place of a permanent restaurant in former Taster’s Pizza, temporary food truck is being considered by city
Short of getting a restaurant up and running in a city of Aspen-owned building across from Rio Grande Park, elected officials are considering establishing food truck service this summer and circumventing the land use code that prohibits such activity.
The city’s land use code requires that all outdoor food and beverage vending must be on private property and cannot inhibit the movement of pedestrian or vehicular traffic along the public right of way.
Outdoor food and beverage vending also can be located in the commercial core, commercial, neighborhood commercial, or commercial lodge zone districts, and may occur on public property that is subject to an approved mall lease, according to the land use code.
A future food truck would be located in front of the restaurant space that was most recently occupied by Taster’s Pizza, which left in 2019 to allow for the city to renovate the building as part of its overhaul of municipal office space.
The city, at Aspen City Council direction earlier this year, has not prioritized the restaurant space to be finished out until other municipal government buildings like the old armory and powerhouse are renovated.
Recognizing the need for affordable restaurant space in town, council members this month said they want to reprioritize finishing the Rio Grande building.
Aspen Mayor Torre resurrected the discussion last week during a work session, asking his fellow council members if they support a food truck knowing that renovating the building and seeking an operator through a request for proposals process will take several months.
“The city schedule for activating that space in the actual location is challenged right now even if we were to start that process now,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process and one alternative or option possibility is the opportunity for a food truck or food stand or something.”
Council members agreed and directed City Manager Sara Ott to pursue finding potential operators and coming up with ways to seek relief of the land use code to allow such activity on public property and in the right of way.
Community Development Director Phillip Supino said last week that he is aware of council’s desire and is awaiting clear direction from the city manager and city attorney’s office on how to proceed.
“I believe the language in the land use code may be sufficiently vague to allow a non-brick-and-mortar food-and-beverage business to operate in the right of way,” Supino said, adding that another way to allow such a use is for the city to obtain a special event license, which is what the Aspen Farmers Market does to allow food trucks in Conner Park. “Staff is preparing to have a discussion with council about the land use code or a special event permit.”
Ott said staff is dusting off the memos from council discussions regarding the activation of food trucks in 2015 and 2020.
“I am working with the mayor to schedule the discussion,” she said via email last week, noting it’s a few weeks out at least.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she is supportive of a code change or special waiver to allow food trucks in the Rio Grande location on a temporary basis but wants the city to move quicker on a permanent restaurant space to offer affordable food options at a reduced rent price for the operator.
“As I had suggested at one of our last meetings, I’d really like to know what we would need to do as a supplemental to augment staff to have the capacity to also get that Taster’s RFP moving sooner than the current timeline,” she said.
Finding a food truck vendor might prove difficult, given how long it took to find one to operate at the Brush Creek Park and Ride, noted Councilman Ward Hauenstein.
“Nobody wanted to do it,” he said. “But if there is interest … for this summer until we can go through an RFP process for the Taster’s spot, I would support having some kind of food services for this area.”
Council member Skippy Mesirow said it’s not surprising that it was difficult to find a food truck operator for the park and ride location since municipalities and county governments haven’t allowed that type of activity in the past.
“People don’t build businesses that they’re not allowed to operate, and restrictions in the valley have kind of told food service individuals that we’re not interested in that so there’s not a lot that exist,” he said. “Once we have a summer where whether someone from here or not demonstrates that people are actually going to come and buy that food and there’s a recognition that some of those policies might change … people will start thinking, ‘Oh, this might be a better opportunity for me.’”
Torre said there are operators out there, citing the food truck that sets up on the Mill Street pedestrian mall near Wagner Park during Ruggerfest in September.
“This is not going to be an easy find or an easy fix,” he said. “We are just giving the opportunity so we will see if it materializes or not.”
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The city of Aspen is short-staffed across the board by 10% and the city manager wants the community to know that less police presence and service reductions in places like parks and recreation are possible.