Art Walk Los Angeles' Nasty War: Oops, Food Truck Ban Is Illegal
Volatile charmer: Joe Moller runs the nonprofit calling itself Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, but he doesn't run the event. Nobody does.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
On the surface, Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk is a celebration of local art, public space and nightlife, luring thousands of revelers and art lovers into the once-forgotten Historic Core on the second Thursday of each month.
It is a deconstructed event, re-created each month by scores of private entrepreneurs who decide whether or not to jump in. It's not run by anyone, not even by the nonprofit funded by downtown business interests that a few years ago took on the name Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk for itself.
But last July, when an infant sitting in a stroller on a city sidewalk was tragically struck and killed by a driver trying to parallel park, a struggle erupted over how to reduce huge throngs of up to 30,000 people in hopes of making the event less chaotic.
Under the direction of Board of Public Works president Andrea Alarcon, city agencies last August controversially banned the scores of food trucks that operated inside the Historic Core, which is the heart of Art Walk. For years, many of these trucks had leased single-day spots in private parking lots, where they peddled to the crowds sandwiches, tacos, desserts and other edibles.
The city's Art Walk Task Force, which also is chaired by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's political appointee Alarcon, was instrumental in winning the ban, arguing that the popular food trucks were to blame for heavy crowds, which could result in another tragedy or mishap.
Some of the private entrepreneurs cried foul but lost.
The effect of the ban could be seen at the May 10 Art Walk. Parking lots that once bustled with food, affordable art and people, in a large area bounded by Main, Spring, Third and Seventh streets, now were filled with parked cars. The Historic Core was more manageable. And the June 14 Art Walk this week is expected to go smoothly.
But behind closed doors, Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk may be edging toward a crisis.
L.A. Weekly has learned that the city is defying a 1996 court injunction that prohibits the government from banning food trucks from private parking lots such as those in the Historic Core.
If anyone sues, taxpayers could be on the hook.
Philip Greenwald, the attorney who won that injunction, has represented mobile catering trucks for 45 years. He was stunned to learn that the city had banned food trucks from private parking lots after it was judged unconstitutional.
"I'm telling you straight out," Greenwald says, "that that injunction has never been withdrawn, it's never been overruled, it's never been set aside."
A spokesman for L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office, sounding ill at ease, repeatedly refused to comment on the city's apparent override of a court order.
But the Department of Building and Safety has been more vocal. Its chief inspector last month publicly warned Alarcon and the Art Walk Task Force that the city does not regulate food-truck entrepreneurs operating in private parking lots.
Building and Safety officials reiterate that fact to the Weekly, releasing to the paper a document detailing the 1996 court order that prohibits City Hall from banning "mobile industrial catering trucks" from private lots, describing such bans as unconstitutional.
Yet that appears to be exactly what the City of Los Angeles is doing.
And city leaders have placed Alarcon — who is not an attorney but is the daughter of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon — in charge of making it stick.
Bert Gall, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., which represents small business owners, currently is directing a pro–street vending effort in the United States. He says of L.A.'s situation, "Banning trucks from operating on private property is very problematic, to say the least."
Phillip Dane is one of those entrepreneurs. For years he has held his "mini-event" at Art Walk, called Truckit Fest, at which he rents space from a private parking lot in the Historic Core, then re-rents spots to as many as 38 food trucks.
When the city's Art Walk Task Force in August gave him and other similar businesses just a few days to abandon their popular venues and relocate to the periphery of Art Walk, a chaotic search erupted for outdoor rental spaces around the Historic Core.
During last month's Art Walk, Dane says, he was busily overseeing his Truckit Fest event in its new location outside the Historic Core, when Alarcon, the city commissioner spearheading the ban, appeared — and zeroed in on him.
Dane says Alarcon asked L.A. city fire inspectors to prevent any further customers from entering Truckit Fest. Then, on the force of Alarcon's claim — that he lacked a permit — Dane says inspectors closed his entryway to diners and art buyers, and his many small vendors lost significant money during 40 minutes of interrupted business.
According to Dane, Alarcon's accusation was untrue, and his entry was reopened.
A few days later, Dane attended May's Art Walk Task Force meeting, chaired by Alarcon, planning to force her to publicly explain her interference with his business.
Alarcon archly responded, "Phillip, I'm not going to engage in a back-and-forth with you. We will talk about it at another time." She refuses to discuss the incident with the Weekly.
Dane now is threatening to file a major claim against both Alarcon and the city.
Further complicating the bad blood arising from the food-truck ban is the fact that Joe Moller, head of the nonprofit Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk group, has simultaneously begun pressuring food trucks and art peddlers to pay his group "special event" fees.
He has no apparent legal basis for his demand for money from these private entrepreneurs. Yet the colorful and often volatile Moller has used the power of the Art Walk Los Angeles Facebook page to publicly slam at least one Art Walk participant who won't pay.
Dane says that, despite its official-sounding name, the Art Walk Los Angeles nonprofit has no authority to demand fees from anyone: "Tomorrow I can start a 501(c)3, call it a nonprofit, name it the Downtown Art Walk 'Coalition' and claim that I'm the guy that handles Art Walk."
Moller retorts: "Phillip is not an artist! Phillip is not a gallery owner! Phillip is a parking-lot pimp!"
But, in fact, Dane is right.
Gallery owner Bert Green founded Art Walk in 2004 as an informal, self-guided tour of downtown's growing number of art galleries. The event grew through word-of-mouth.
Moller's entity was formed five years later — well after Art Walk was a success. His salary is paid through funds provided by downtown property owners organized by prominent developer Tom Gilmore. The nonprofit's website lists one artist and no gallery owners on its nine-member board, which represents downtown business interests.
To be sure, Moller's group does some good things to enhance Art Walk. It pays a firm to clean the sidewalks before and after each event, provides a free brochure listing participating galleries and manages the much-trafficked Art Walk Facebook page.
Moller, an event planner who boasts Dolce & Gabbana and Dr. Dre among his clients, won Philanthropist of the Year in 2007 from the Society of Young Philanthropists.
But he's also a loose cannon. Most of Moller's current venom is directed at fledgling entrepreneur Art SQuare, run by Carl Edgar and Derrick Knight, who sublease a private parking lot and then rent individual stalls to artists, craftsmen and food purveyors.
Art SQuare previously was held in a Historic Core parking lot but, due to the city's restrictions, now uses the 1924 Spring Arcade Building's breezeway between Broadway and Spring.
Last year, Art SQuare signed a contract to "donate" $5,000 a year to Moller's nonprofit. In turn, Moller would direct business to Art SQuare by referring artists who needed to rent booths.
But Art SQuare broke the contract, infuriating Moller.
When the Weekly described to Art Walk founder Green the deal in which Moller's group would have acted as an agent for Art SQuare, Green, who is no longer involved in the event, asked: "Why is the Art Walk [nonprofit] organization making money off of artists?"
In February, Moller publicly blasted Edgar and Knight on the Art Walk Facebook page, alleging, "We just got a second call this week from another vendor burned by Art SQuare." Moller then denied his post was an attack, telling the Weekly, "We have never published any negative information about Art SQuare." Moller told the paper: "What we see, in Art Walk's point of view, are continuing and ongoing permitting infractions, intentionally executed by Art SQuare."
Moller goes further, alleging that Edgar and Knight lack proper health permits and are "willing to roll the dice to make money."
In truth, Art SQuare has a county health permit to sell food, and its recent "dice rolling" — if it can be termed that — was in allowing a vendor to improperly serve cupcakes, which drew a minor citation.
Even Andrea Alarcon says, "Art SQuare, they've been nothing but cooperative."
Despite his near-libelous slams, Moller also is victim to the confused ban and other rules that Alarcon's task force approved last summer and persuaded the City Council to adopt in October.
One City Council–approved idea is that Art Walk become an official entity that pays hefty special-event fees to City Hall. But that assumes the existence of a deep-pocketed Art Walk "sponsor" that could pay. There isn't one.
In lieu of that, Alarcon persuaded Moller's group to voluntarily pay a special-events fee of $3,000 to $6,000 during each of the event's crowded, warm-season months, tapping into funds it gets from businesses. Many businesses open their bars, cafés and galleries for the crowds.
The fee covers the salaries of city transportation, fire and Building and Safety officers who make sure Art Walk runs smoothly.
But after Moller paid his first special-event permit fee of $3,000 in October, he turned around and asked the banned food-truck owners to sign a contract to reimburse him for the permit fee, leaving a blank space for his proposed charges.
Moller sent an email to Dane, of Truckit Fest, for example, seeking $1,500. Dane, who had just been shoved outside the Historic Core by the city ban, angrily called the request "arbitrary" and wouldn't pay.
"It was never arbitrary," Moller says. "At the end of the day, Phillip wants to make as much money as possible."
Now the city wants the food-truck vendors to pay it special-event fees. "It's really black-and-white," Dane says. "You've got an event that's not 'sponsored.' The city wants to recoup some money, and they're trying to pass the buck to people like myself."
Alarcon has been publicly warned — by a top Building and Safety official — that the Art Walk Task Force is on shaky ground pursuing such fees from people peddling edibles in private parking lots.
"We don't address the food trucks at all, and we don't [get involved in issuing permits] to them," Building and Safety Chief Inspector Todd Borzi informed Alarcon at her May task force meeting.
But Alarcon insists, of both the Historic Core ban and of her emerging demand that the food truck mini-events pushed to the periphery directly pay special-event fees to City Hall: "These lots themselves are deemed special events — and subject to the special-events permit process."
Gall, at the Institute for Justice, says, "I've heard in other cities where food trucks, within an actual festival, may have to pay — because the theory is they're paying for extra city services." But, he says, if the trucks are banned from the core of an event nobody owns, "What is the fee supposed to pay for?"
On May 10, sitting with Alarcon, the Weekly asked her how things were going. She painted a rosy picture, saying she was grateful that Moller's nonprofit is paying monthly, special-event fees to the city.
Things haven't worked out so well for the "parking-lot pimps." Art peddlers also were forced out of the outdoor parking lots by the ban. But unlike the trucks, they found indoor locations in the Historic Core where most Art Walk customers gather.
Alarcon says it's a big improvement "because the food-truck lots were utilizing all of the parking lots inside the core," and July's accidental death of the baby involved a driver trying to park someplace else.
Dane doesn't see it that way, saying, "Unjustly, the food trucks were blamed."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.