With the recent sale of the former Meridian nightclub - and by extension its parking lot - the Houston Food Park is prepared to pack up and roll out of East Downtown.
In 2013, the abandoned warehouse at 1503 Chartres St. seemed like the perfect place to open the city's first food truck park. The Meridian's last year in business was rife with management disputes, and owner Gary Katz couldn't find anyone to lease the 50,000 square feet property. Foodie partners Tirzo Ponce and Miguel Villegas offered to take the parking lot off his hands.
As trucks clustered outside, Ponce and Villegas cleaned up the Meridian. They rewired the electricity and fixed damaged water pipes, hoping to build an air-conditioned dining area on the first floor. In return for their investment on the building, Katz offered Ponce and Villegas below market-value rent on the parking lot.
So it came as a shock to the food park partners when Katz, who could no longer afford the building, gave it up in a bankruptcy sale. It went up for auction, top bidder Ecclesia church signed a contract to purchase it for $3.75 million, and by September the food park was sitting on some pretty shaky ground.
Anton Sinkewich, executive director of the East Downtown Management District, says the food park is a valuable attraction and he is committed to keeping in the neighborhood even if it has to move from its current location. Sinkewich said he has proposed a number of vacant parcels in EaDo, but the neighborhood association can't compete with investors who want to recruit the food park to other parts of town.
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Ponce says the folks at Ecclesia are open to letting the food park stay and continue building out the indoor dining area, but logistics of sharing the parking lot may be difficult when the church needs it for services at least two days out of the week.
Until he can finalize a deal with Ecclesia in writing, Ponce is looking into other locations. He says he plans to open a food truck park at 10 West and Beltway 8, across from Memorial City Mall, but that it doesn't necessarily mean he will close the current location. The best case scenario for the partners would be to keep their business in East Downtown, continue constructing an indoor dining area on Ecclesia's first floor and additionally build out a Houston Food Park West.
Of the potential loss of his investments on a building he never owned, Ponce says he regrets taking big risks in the rush to create Houston's first food park. "We were under strong impression this is something we could use long-term," he said. "It was our fault and we're not blaming the previous owner in any way. It's a lesson learned on our part." Their lawyer advised them not to disclose just how much they spent on renovations.
Ponce's plans for expansion come on the heels of recent city council proposals to deregulate food trucks by allowing them to operate in the downtown and set up a few chairs and tables for seating customers. Providing air-conditioned seating for food trucks to share is still his priority -- he said until then, there's no way food trucks can even begin to compete with restaurants.