On a Friday night, a stretch of North Power Road just south of East McKellips Road has a mini-county-fair vibe.
Stadium lights shine as kids run around, with parents getting cozy on lawn chairs around fire pits. Recorded music blasts out of speakers, with the aromas of burgers, egg rolls, poutine and garlic fries, crepes and more wafting through in the air.
For an office complex, you can’t beat the food and fun.
This isn’t actually an office park, though that was the original, city-approved plan for a few acres here.
Then came Power Food Park, which – in addition to a few hundred visitors eating, drinking and making merry on weekend nights – has more than 8,000 Facebook followers.
Pretty impressive, as the food truck mall has been in operation for less than a year.
Mini-restaurants on wheels are the thing around the Valley, so everyone seems to be happy – except some neighbors along East Halifax Drive and East Hobart Street who say the food truck park is threatening to overrun their once-quiet neighborhood, sandwiched between a Love of Christ Lutheran Church and Mayfair Assisted Living Home.
Some say this is another Mesa bait-and-switch case, with the shift from an office park to “food truck city” blindsiding the neighborhood.
Complaints triggered a key “zoning interpretation” that threatens to unplug the food trucks – just as the owners are planning to throw their park into overdrive.
Some of the Halifax and Hobart residents expressed concern that Power Food Park is rapidly expanding without proper vetting: The owners bought an adjoining lot bordered by East Hobart Road that will more than double the size of the operation.
“Our quiet, serene neighborhood has been seriously adversely affected since the Power Food Park set up operations here,” said Patricia Venisnik, who lives on Hobart, said.
Ditto, said Ted Sparks, who lives on Halifax.
“My concerns are for the neighborhood if these owners are allowed to continue operating a food truck carnival – and even worse if they are successful in converting our last remaining residential lots into whatever commercial venture they might decide to inflict upon us once the novelty of that operation wears off,” Sparks said.
He added that as soon as the Power Food Park owners bought the neighboring property, they “brought in heavy equipment to grade the property, removing all vegetation and spreading hundreds of tons of sand and gravel in its place.
“They don’t seem to be at all concerned that the first hearing on their zoning application has not even been held.”
October looms as a huge month.
As owners David Darling and Ray Johnson gear up to expand from weekends-only to every-night-but-Sunday starting Oct. 1, neighbors are getting ready to launch a counter-offensive at crucial Oct. 13 meetings.
The focus on debate likely will be a critical “interpretation” by Planning Director Nana Appiah.
On June 16, Appiah wrote the Power Food Park plan “showed a majority of the property contained primary uses consistent with public parks and recreational facilities, and a significant area reserved for other recreational activities.
“Over the past months, the property, according to various pictures and complaints from the surrounding property owners, has been used primarily as a food truck park,” he wrote.
“Based on the definition of a Public Park and Recreational Facilities, the current use of the property, primarily as a food truck park, does not conform to the requirements of the definition of Public Parks and Recreational Facilities.”
Gearing up for battle
Neighbors expect the PFP owners to heavily lobby city staff to allow the current operation.
“We are starting to gear up for a battle,” vowed Craig Vossler, who called this “an issue that our neighborhood has been dealing with for a number of years.”
Vossler said he has been watching this property, located a few doors down from his home, closely since Darling bought it in 2007 with the original plan a modest office development.
Who, he wonders, approved the current operation?
“We don’t know how they did it,” Vossler said. “Starting in July 2019, they had been working with the city to create ‘Power Beach Park,’ a 1-acre beach theme private park with splash pad, cabanas, sand volleyball, fire pits, food vending areas, etc. and an approximate 1-acre parking lot.”
In December 2019, Darling submitted an application for Power Beach Park: “New Neighborhood Park with a beach theme concept for public and private use. Park shall contain volley ball beach court, splash pad, fire pits, public restrooms and vending.”
Vossler said he was shocked to see that idea suddenly become “a food truck park.”
“Now they have purchased an additional 3.8 acres to the north ...with the intention of getting all the land rezoned to Neighborhood Commercial so they can enlarge the Power Food Park,” he complained.
Vossler said something smells wrong – literally.
“The majority of the neighborhood is against the Power Food Park in any form as it doesn’t fit the character of our neighborhood. It has brought noise, lights, smells and an increase in unsafe traffic,” Vossler said.
“We feel as though the Planning Department may be pressured to go along with this operation, then the P&Z Board and ultimately the City Council will approve it.
“With all the recent ‘slam dunks’ in zoning and rezoning around Mesa, we’re afraid that our once quiet neighborhood and way of life will be destroyed. And for what? A food park?”
Neighbors will have a chance to give the expanded food truck park a thumbs up or down when the plan goes before the Planning and Zoning board, tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 13 in City Council Chambers.
The interpretation by Appiah, the city’s planning director, is scheduled to be heard the same day at the Board of Adjustment.
Darling and Johnson hardly invented this notion; indeed, every Saturday night, Pioneer Park is the site of “Mesa Feastival Forest,” with rotating food trucks.
Ten miles east of downtown, a makeshift parking lot is set up on the south side of Halifax, though many park vehicles on the street near Power Food Park.
The owners are requesting rezoning from Office/Commercial to Neighborhood Commercial to “allow for the use of the north portion of the property for an expansion of the Power Park and address specific concerns associated with the overwhelming popularity of the property as a park, by providing additional parking on site for normal and peak times.
“This additional parking will help pull parking off the surrounding public streets,” according to the application, which concludes, “Power Park is a great addition to the city of Mesa and helps build a strong neighborhood.”
Based on the first winter, when the food truck mall hit the ground with wheels spinning, Johnson and Darling expect a big fall and second winter.
“As we get into the cooler months, there is a much more active atmosphere and greater numbers (of patrons),” Johnson said.
There is no admission fee and the owners are paid by the food trucks.
“The key to all this is the opportunity for many small businesses to come and participate in vending their food at our park,” Johnson said. “We are so grateful for all of the neighbors and members of the community who come to support the small business owners.”
Count Vossler as one neighbor who does not support the notion.
He provided a detailed timeline of the development, starting with the 2007 purchase and various plans for the site.
Darling paid around $700,000 for the two acres he and a different partner purchased in 2007, with a rezoning request to allow for four small office buildings.
Ten years later, Vossler and a few other neighbors met with Darling and Johnson at Councilman David Luna’s office, with discussion ranging from a self-storage facility to multi-family housing to a restaurant.
Vossler said he felt Luna “sided with” Darling and Johnson, dismissing neighbor concerns.
Luna refused a request by the Tribune for an interview on this topic.
‘A nice, rustic feel’
Darling insisted that the overall vibe from the food park’s neighbors “has been really positive. We see neighbors in the immediate area that walk to the park and are some of our biggest fans.”
Darling said he and his partner bought more land because of support from patrons.
“We have been able to purchase 4 acres to the north to accommodate the popularity of the park. We are working on a zoning case with the city to develop the park more fully,” Darling said, noting he and Johnson hope to add a splash pad and other amenities.
He qualified the planned expansion: “We’re not adding more food trucks. We’re adding more seating, additional fire pits and parking.”
Fire pits for rent have become a popular addition, he noted.
“It’s got a nice, rustic feel,” Darling said of his business. “It’s just such a great family friendly gathering space for the community. We’ve got great outdoor seating to help people stay safe during COVID. And for food trucks, it’s a blessing.”
After sitting on the vacant land for a dozen years, he and Johnson – friends since high school – decided to try to recreate food truck parks they experienced in their native Oregon.
“We have seen food trucks as gathering places,” Darling said.
Finding the right plan for Power and Halifax has been on his mind since 2007, he said, even after ripping up the plans for an office project.
“Our timing was not great, with the economic downturn of ‘07. Midblock office (development) became very saturated,” Darling said.
Darling and Johnson independently settled in Mesa to raise families. Johnson is an attorney, Darling a healthcare administrator. The two also have a wood pallet manufacturing and recycling company.
Darling said the Arizona Legislature empowered him to reshape his vision for the land on Power: “The ‘Food Truck Freedom Act’ really provided an opportunity for us to support small businesses,” he said, referring to House Bill 2371.
Passed in 2018, it set up uniform guidelines for regulating “food mobile food vendors and mobile food units,” aka food trucks.
Mesa recently established its first mobile food vendor license, which costs $135 (including a $10 fee for background checks).
Darling said social media has been key to Power Food Park’s success, with going on 9,000 Facebook followers and 13,000-plus Instagram followers.
With no roof and low overhead, the sky’s the limit for the food truck operation.
“We expect robust crowds as the weather is improving,” Darling said.
“We’re the only community gathering space of the kind in Mesa,” he claimed.
Vossler, for one, is not buying the way the park was fast tracked.
“There was no review of the Power Food Park, because they went in the backdoor somewhere at the city and got the OK,” Vossler said.
“We don’t even know what permit they were given. They just dropped the Beach Park idea altogether and opened the Food Truck Park in December 2020. Now they have purchased 3.8 additional acres on Hobart Street and Power Road thinking they are going to get it all rezoned for a new and bigger food park.”
Venisnik is dreading what will happen next.
“In the cooler months, beginning Oct. 1, our neighborhood will be inundated with unbelievable numbers of vehicles arriving to visit the ‘park’ and this will be occurring six nights every week,” she said. “That also means increased noise, lights and smells we are forced to endure.
“With the purchase of additional adjoining property by the owners of the property the food park is currently operating on, this situation is going to get much, much worse.”
Like Vossler, she questions: How did this happen?
“The legality of operating a food truck park on this property is questionable at best,” Venisnik said, “and the city of Mesa seems to be dragging their feet in correcting this situation.”
The two Oct. 13 city meetings likely will answer a key question:
Will “Food Truck City” get the green light to power ahead – or will neighbors successfully “pump the brakes” on the project?
For more information, visit powerfoodpark.com or call 602-770-9955.