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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The end of an era is coming August 15, when Rutgers University will force the five remaining “grease trucks” to vacate a university parking lot that they have made famous with their presence over the past 21 years.
Forced to move to make way for a major redevelopment project set to begin construction this fall, the beloved food trucks are facing an uncertain future with less than two weeks until the move.
Meanwhile, Rutgers has little to say about a new application process being implemented for food vendors that could keep at least some of the trucks in the city.
Long before the development plans were made public, Rutgers expressed displeasure with the expenses associated with hosting the trucks in their parking lot and announced their intent to develop a campuswide public bidding process for food truck vendors.
Since then, the university has implemented a less-than-public application process for mobile food vendors to seek spaces to operate on the Rutgers campus. The developer, New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), has also made it clear that it will not welcome the trucks back to the site after it finishes construction.
Though the actual trucks won’t return, DEVCO President Chris Paladino told New Brunswick Today that, when construction is completed, he anticipates “several of the current operators participating in the new configuration of the public space at lot 8 along with a wider variety of food options.”
A Star-Ledger article earlier this year detailed the changes planned for the site, quoting Paladino as saying, “We have every intention to put them back. It makes no sense to eliminate what is obviously part of the popular culture of Rutgers.”
According to a draft copy of the official Rutgers mobile food vendor application obtained by New Brunswick Today, the spots currently offerred include five spaces on Senior Street adjacent to the Alexander Library, one near the former Cooper Dining Hall on the Douglass campus, and three more on the university’s campuses in Piscataway.
But it’s unclear how the university will determine which vendors get approval for which spaces, and whether preferential treatment will be given to the owners of the existing trucks.
A Rutgers spokesman did not answer questions about the permit application process.
“The university has been in discussions with these food truck operators about alternative sites. We expect this to be resolved very soon,” spokesman EJ Miranda said Friday, adding that the removal of the trucks was part of a “comprehensive initiative to redevelop the College Avenue Campus.”
The university will also be imposing new rules on the vendors lucky enough to be approved, including limiting the length of the trucks to 21 feet. The new rules also call for the trucks to vacate their spaces between the hours of 2am and 7am.
In 1992, the city government forced nine food trucks out of their existing on-street locations by adopting a law banning food vendors from city streets. But George Gussis, a local attorney, helped the truck owners negotiate a favorable deal to move into their current home, a university parking lot at the heart of Rutgers’ historic campus.
Since that move, the trucks made a name for themselves, earning props from Maxim Magazine in 2004 for offering the nation’s best sandwich and appearing on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food” in 2009.
But DEVCO’s plan for a new public plaza and sixteen-story skyscraper on the site of the 170-space parking lot known best for hosting the trucks have threatened the future of the small businesses. The massive structure would include 800 privatized student apartments for Rutgers students.
It was approved almost instantly by the New Brunswick City Council and Rutgers administration last summer, and earned unanimous support from the city Planning Board in December. With the help of $33 million in state tax credits, the project’s financing fell into place earlier this year.
After sparking the controversy over the future of the trucks in 2011, Rutgers conducted an online survey that garnered 1,812 responses specifically about the grease trucks issue and released the results in January 2012.
A website set up by the Rutgers University Department of Transportation Services still features a link to a letter published in the Daily Targum titled, “Grease trucks may remain in Lot 8.”
“My goal here is to reassure you, the University community, that you will be able to purchase fat sandwiches in Lot 8 on College Avenue,” wrote Scott Siegel, then-treasurer of the Rutgers University Student Assembly.
“Keep your eyes and ears open to a survey that should be coming out soon gauging interest in what type of food trucks we want to see in Lot 8,” wrote Siegel.
When asked what types of food they wanted at the space currently occupied by the trucks, 68% of respondents said “fat sandwiches,” the most of any category. Second place was “organic/healthy,” with 40%.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.