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Diners haven't been able to enjoy the Lake Phalen Food Truck Park for much of the summer. Without an operator, the Greater East Side Community Council had to shut the plaza down.

After working for years to accommodate a food truck park, East Side St. Paul community organizations have figuratively cleared the table.

Staff time needed to regulate food trucks, insurance costs, cleanup issues and difficulty in getting some truck operators to pay prompted the Greater East Side Community Council and Northeast Neighbors Development Corp. to stop handling food truck operations at a vacant White Bear Avenue lot last year.

A few food trucks this year moved to a development southeast of Lake Phalen, in an open space dubbed the Lake Phalen Food Truck Park. The development is anchored by an Aldi grocery store. But after the June grand opening of the development’s community room, a food truck operator who’d taken responsibility for trucks there bowed out. No new operator has stepped forward to coordinate trucks and find ways to cover any other expenses.

Operating the White Bear Avenue lot, meanwhile, had “become a full-time job for us,” said Lisa Heilman Theis, the community council’s executive director. The smaller site also cuts into staff time.

Yet another issue with the White Bear Avenue lot was that the city required more space between trucks in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting the number of trucks that fit from more than a dozen to about eight.

Food trucks for years had parked in the vacant lot, the former site of Hafner’s restaurant. But in 2019, city officials surprised everyone by posting “no trespassing” signs and barricading the lot. City staff said a conditional use permit was needed for lot operations to continue. But high costs and timelines would have wiped out the venue.

The Northeast Neighbors Development Corp. managed food trucks at the lot for several years, rather than have it sit vacant. Chuck Repke, the former NENDC executive director who died in August, said in a past interview that the trucks added activity to the vacant lot.

Food trucks illegally parked on the White Bear Avenue lot this summer until city officials barricaded it. Nelsie Yang, who represents the area on the St. Paul City Council, announced the lot closing in early July. Site entrances have been blocked and “no trespassing” signs erected.

“The property at 1560-1590 White Bear Avenue is owned by the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority,” Yang said. “There is currently no licensed operator for this site, and the site is unavailable for any kind of use at this time. Unauthorized use of the site constitutes trespassing.”

Yang said the site is valued as a food truck location. She urged prospective operators to contact the city.

A city spokesperson said no one else has come forward to operate the lot. Instead, vehicles are parking on White Bear Avenue and side streets around the lot. One late July day, 10 trucks were parked there.

Losing spaces means customers used to finding a favorite vendor at a specific spot have to check social media and websites to track down the trucks. It’s just one issue food truck operators face, said Matt Moylan of the trade and advocacy group Mobile Food MN. While loss of a longtime space is a hassle, his group is much more concerned with issues such as inconsistency in various fees charged from city to city.

Trucks can move to street parking when they lose off-street spots. But Theis said that while trucks can park on neighborhood streets, there are concerns about patrons getting too close to traffic as their food is served. While a Sunday food truck day at Gustavus Adolphus Church has met some operator demand, there are still many trucks on White Bear Avenue.

“Getting the trucks off of the street was why we set up the White Bear Avenue park in the first place,” she said.

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