A neighborhood favorite taqueria is going mobile in the Highland Park neighborhood, despite a Des Moines City Council member’s attempt to thwart it.
Council member Linda Westergaard pushed back against a zoning change at a Monday night council meeting that would allow El Michoacano Taqueria to operate a food truck at 415 E. Euclid Ave. on Des Moines’ northeast side. The owner, Gerardo Perez, already owns El Michoacano Taqueria, 2922 Merle Hay Road. He purchased the Euclid building in the Highland Park neighborhood in May with plans to turn the space into a retail store and bring a complimentary taco truck to the property’s parking lot.
Perez, whose request to rezone the property from a “neighborhood district” to a “mixed-use district” had already been approved by the Plan and Zoning Commission in September, needed one last green light from the City Council to bring his mobile food truck to fruition — a continuation of a business that he says took him years to get off the ground.
The spectacle played out for half an hour Monday night, inciting audible reactions from an invested audience at City Hall. Gathered community members groaned and scoffed as Westergaard, whose ward encompasses the Highland Park neighborhood, peppered Perez with questions — and then scolded audience members for their reactions, asking them for “quiet.”
Tensions escalated further when other City Council members came in defense of the business owner. And just as Westergaard moved to delay the final vote — which would’ve triggered the item to come before council twice more over the course of four weeks — a local business owner from the audience made an appeal. Claps erupted from the audience as Westergaard, in a reluctant, eleventh-hour vote, voted alongside her peers to pass the item and waive a second and third reading.
Westergaard later told the Des Moines Register she didn’t know about the request until it was discussed at the meeting. She said they “welcome him into the neighborhood” and she’s “glad he’s coming.”
Perez said he’s now able to open the taco truck as soon as possible.
“The benefit is that we can get a better life for them, to improve the business and our family,” Perez told the Register. “More income, so, you know, our family can live better. And we try to help the community with our food. We try to make the customers happy.”
Westergaard: ‘I just can’t support this’
Westergaard, who was initially the sole vocal opponent to the rezoning among her council peers, said her disapproval stemmed from concerns over having a vacant building. The property previously housed the Almost Free shop.
Westergaard, who told the council she drives by the property every day, said that neighbors have brought up concerns about the building falling into disrepair since Perez bought it. She said weeds have grown around the property and “junk” has ended up on the fence lines that divide from neighboring properties.
She argued that granting Perez the rezoning to add the food truck didn’t provide any incentive for him to clean or maintain the building itself.
“My concern is is we’re going to change the zoning and then that building’s going to stay vacant for the next five years because I haven’t seen any improvements since it’s been vacant,” Westergaard said.
Perez told the council his plan is to use the building as a retail store that will sell restaurant and food truck supplies. The food truck, to be named El Michoacano Taqueria Mobile and be located in the parking lot, is meant to be opened in tandem to attract customers. The truck would have a similar concept to his current taqueria on Merle Hay Road, which serves up Mexican dishes like tacos, tortas, quesadillas and sopes.
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He said repairs and remodeling had already been completed outside and inside the Euclid building, and that he’d been working to stock the store in preparation for what he called a “grand opening.” He added he didn’t hear negative comments from neighbors when he shared his rezoning proposal ahead of the Plan and Zoning meeting.
“I can open the business tomorrow with your guys’ approval,” Perez told the council.
Westergaard responded that the site would not be the best spot for a food truck because of its proximity to people’s houses.
“If we change the zoning, you can be there forever,” Westergaard said.
At one point during the back-and-forth, Westergaard warned that Perez was likely approaching — or had already approached — a six-month deadline by which his building would lose its ability to operate as a retail space due to its vacant status. She suggested that the council vote to give the owner a conditional use permit until Perez was able to fix the store.
“I think maybe you need to take a step back,” she told Perez. “I just can’t support this. And I want you to have a food truck, I mean, if you could do it temporarily.”
Cody Christensen, director of development services, told the council that once a property is determined to be vacant for six months then it loses its “grandfather rights,” which allows the property to continue operating as a retail space. When a business loses that status, it would have to go through the rezoning process again. Christensen confirmed the Euclid building has not yet lost its grandfather rights.
The rezoning, Christensen added, would allow the food truck to get added to the property and allow other uses to come into the building.
But Westergaard wasn’t convinced.
“I still don’t like the idea that we’re going to change the zoning so we can put a food truck there without any plans for anything else,” she said. “And you can say … ‘we’re going to do this,’ but it hasn’t been done for six months and I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t seen any repairs.”
Westergaard also raised questions about parking space issues, noting a concern that there’s not enough for both the business and the truck. The site currently has 10 parking spaces, according to a report from the Plan and Zoning Commission.
“The proposal that’s been brought forward has been looked at by city staff and it’s been determined to be a viable site for both retail use and the food truck,” Christensen responded.
“But together?” Westergaard asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Des Moines City Council members chime in on dispute
Amid the discussion, at-large council member Connie Boesen, a candidate for Des Moines mayor, said she thinks the city should hire a staff member to guide new business owners through the process and help get them open.
Council member Josh Mandelbaum, also a mayoral candidate, chimed into the conversation, noting the City Council was creating barriers for small business owners.
“The only barrier is us,” Mandelbaum said, addressing the council and Christensen. “If we approve this right now, he could start his business after this is approved, correct?”
Westergaard reiterated her concerns about neighbors being tired of seeing empty buildings. She again offered the alternative of a conditional use permit until he opened the store.
Christensen said the staff had approved it because they’d heard the desire to allow businesses to open to generate revenue and then be able to make improvements.
“This action allows this gentleman to generate some revenue for the site and build up some of that to reinvest in the property,” he said.
More:Two Des Moines mayoral candidates have similar stances on key issues. Where do they differ?
The scene escalated, shifting into a tense moment between Westergaard and Mandelbaum.
“He doesn’t have to do anything else ever to that building and that’s what concerns me,” Westergaard pressed. “It’s an empty building but I want the incentive to be there to be …”
“I mean, he owns the building, he has every incentive to improve it. He can’t if we deny him the opportunity to operate as a business,” Mandelbaum said. “This is the next step … At this point, our action is the only barrier to him getting open and that’s wrong.”
“Well, Josh, it’s not your neighborhood, it’s not your neighborhood. It’s my neighborhood,” Westergaard said. “And I know how the neighbors feel about other empty buildings.”
“It’s our community,” Mandelbaum said, drawing a “yeah” from the audience.
In a reluctant shift, City Council approves rezoning
Westergaard later turned her attention back to Perez asking if the request was passed, how soon he’d be open.
“Tomorrow,” he responded.
Westergaard made a motion to move the first reading and revisit the item in a few weeks. It was seconded by at-large council member Carl Voss.
In a Hail Mary attempt, Scott Selix, co-founder of Lua Brewing and a member of Monday night’s audience, pleaded with council members to not thwart the process.
“Even if you push it back … two weeks, the cash flow is huge,” Selix said. “I mean, it’s really hard. I look at this guy and he’s up here working to open a business in an empty building. … I just think that it should be approved.”
Westergaard asked Perez if he was OK with waiting two weeks.
“I was thinking if I get it approved tonight, I was thinking to go and pay the permit tomorrow and start the food trailer on Wednesday,” Perez said. “I’ve got everything already set up.”
A moment later, Westergaard amended her motion, prompting council members to vote on the item and waive the second and third reading. It passed unanimously.
“There you go,” Westergaard said as the audience clapped. “I’ll be your first customer.”
The food truck’s grand opening is Friday at 4 p.m., according to its website.
Virginia Barreda is the Des Moines city government reporter for the Register. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.