The Dec. 12 meeting of Madison's Vending Oversight Committee skipped ahead quickly to agenda item 5 in consideration of the handful of people who'd come to speak on the topic: "Late Night Vending Status Quo and possible recommendations for change."
The issue, which was first discussed at the previous committee meeting on Oct. 31, centers on an area along the 400 block of Broom Street between State and Gorham that has become popular and lucrative for late night food carts -- but with its popularity, has brought problems to nearby brick-and-mortar restaurants.
At the Oct. 31 meeting, Rich Scheflow, owner of Silver Mine Subs, and two representatives from Pita Pit, two nearby businesses who are also open serving food late night, presented their concerns, ranging from an influx of too many carts to unfair competition, unfair proximity, blocked access, traffic and parking issues, garbage, and street cart customers using their bathrooms.
Discussion of how to address these problems continued on Wednesday evening. The unfair competition angle was addressed only obliquely, with the focus centering more so on alleviating the traffic congestion that stems from cart owners jockeying to get prime places within the vending zone, which are parking spaces along the curb.
The meeting moved on to questions about possibly limiting the number of carts that could vend on Broom, and exploring other areas where the others could vend, in viable parking spots nearby.
Initial discussion focused largely on Assistant City Attorney Lara Mainella's explanation of the legal restrictions surrounding parking spaces, which cannot be assigned to or reserved for late night food carts. What happens in practice is that carts circle the block, double park or wait in yellow zones or hydrant areas, and wait for spots to open; this causes traffic problems at best and a possible safety hazard. While creating assigned spots would solve that problem, it's not legal.
Mainella explained this is part of the state motor vehicle code. Situations where parking is reserved, as with a construction project, are tied to a building permit. The bags that are sometimes seen on meters restricting parking near the Overture Center or the Majestic Theatre for buses are available only for a limited number of situations as per city ordinance on temporary restricted parking, with an emphasis on temporary. Street vendors do not fit any of the categories. Mainella suggested the only way one could get reserved spots on Broom Street would be to decommission it as a roadway, which she termed "a major, major undertaking."
Steven Lawrence from the Fried and Fabulous food cart suggested several options, including alleviating the scene on Broom by finding parking spots elsewhere for carts (on which he had several suggestions), and by increasing enforcement and fines for carts that do not follow the regulations, such as failing to provide a trash barrel or are dumping trash in another business's dumpster. Lawrence indicated that the Madison police have better things to do at 2 a.m. than deal with food cart violations, but if the fines were large enough to hurt a small business, there would be greater compliance.
Warren Hansen, street vending coordinator, noted that there are fines in place, and any increase would have to go through the Common Council. He also said that cart enforcement has usually taken an "educate, then enforce" approach rather than via fining for violations right off the bat.
Lawrence said that of usual carts on Broom, with two probably show up on Thursdays, and three or four on Fridays and Saturdays. Five or six is the most he has ever seen at one time. "There is a lot of movement," he said.
Scheflow said he'd be happier with no carts in the area: "Two is better than four, zero is better."
But the committee agreed that if the number of vending spots on Broom were to be limited, alternatives should be made available. Finding them is difficult, however, in terms of avoiding very busy streets (i.e., Gorham), traffic logjams, competing late night restaurant storefronts, and residential areas.
Ironically, the Library Mall, which fulfills all these requirements, and is actually a late night vending zone, has proven unsuccessful from a business standpoint. Even during Halloween's Freakfast, vendors there found it to be without much foot traffic. "It was dead," reported Lawrence.
Vending from sidewalks is impractical as they are too narrow in the area adjacent to State Street. Vending in empty lots or parking lots, common in cities with vibrant food cart life such as Portland, Oregon, violates Madison zoning codes, Ald. Mike Verveer pointed out.
Ultimately, Hansen and the committee will be looking at alternative parking spaces that might fit relevant criteria yet take the pressure off of Broom Street, and still bring in enough business to be lucrative. Yet, Mainella warned, anything that sounds like an effort to reserve parking or assign spaces in the street would not fly, and must be avoided.