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SDOT Reviving Rough Downtown Spots by Recruiting Food Trucks

Gabriel Spitzer

You might think of the Seattle Department of Transportation as the city’s pothole-fillers and construction crews. But SDOT is also involved in a whole range of what you might call social-engineering projects—efforts to create vibrant public spaces. 

And SDOT has turned to food trucks in an attempt to transform troublesome downtown spots into welcoming public spaces.

Jennifer Weiland, who heads SDOT’s public space management program, helped recruit food trucks to Westlake Park. She says food trucks are like melting pots.

“When people are lining up waiting to get food, or, you know, picking up their food or talking to others about what it is they’ve just ordered, it really does start to engage people,” she said. “And it lets them know that there’s something I can do here, there’s a good reason for me to come outside.”

Food trucks are just one way SDOT is trying to galvanize downtown spaces. The department also facilitates sidewalk cafes, coordinates street furniture, and helps create tiny so-called “parklets.” 

Weiland says the efforts aim to counteract downtown’s grittier side.

“There are times when you’ve got a bunch of people gathered, and maybe there’s some illegal activities happening, or maybe, for whatever reason, the group just feels a little bit threatening to some folks. Adding an element of positive activation is a way to counteract what some people can perceive as a negative,” she said.

The effort has been ongoing for about two months now, and Weiland says the reaction has been positive, though there’s no data that measures success. She says the city is trying to recruit additional food trucks to Westlake Park and to a spot on the Pike Street Hillclimb.

Derrick Ellis of the Lumpia World food truck says the move has worked out well enough for him that he’s looking to add another day at Westlake. And, he says, the truck mixes together people who might not normally mingle.

“Not only just people that work by here, but a lot of the visitors to Seattle, as well as some of the kids or individuals that hang out here on a daily basis,” he said. "They come by … and we get to know them, and we try to speak some positivity in their lives. You know, it’s great.”

SDOT is also taking suggestions from the public on other downtown spaces designate for food trucks.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.