Late-night food carts in downtown Madison could be gone by 2023 under a proposal that phases out vending over the next five years.
Currently, four food carts hold a late-night vending license, which allows them to operate from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. in specific areas that include the 400 block of North Broom Street, the 500 block of North Frances Street, University and Lake streets and at North Lake Street and University Avenue.
Under the proposal, no new businesses looking to operate late at night would be able to apply for a permit for the 2018-2019 vending season beginning April 15. Vendors who have held permits during the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 season would be able to purchase permits through 2023.
“The phase out piece of that plan is to really help the current vendors who are late-night vendors start to research and find opportunities as they will be losing that late-night vending and that revenue stream,” said street vending coordinator Meghan Blake-Horst.
Late-night vending is fraught with challenges especially when operating in high density areas where much of the clientele can be intoxicated, Blake-Horst said.
“That’s been an ongoing challenge, and it really does take a lot of our staff time for a very small amount of vendors,” Blake-Horst said.
The city revoked a late-night vending license for Leia’s Lunchbox in December following an October incident that involved an employee of the food cart drawing a gun and pointing it at someone causing a disturbance in line.
Madison Police Department Central District Capt. Jason Freedman said the proposed changes to late night vending are part of a broader attempt to curb the negative, and often alcohol-fueled, activity downtown late at night.
"We view the food carts, through no fault of their own, they are contributing or exacerbating some of the problems we’re seeing downtown," Freedman said. "We’re not labeling the carts the root of this problem, nor are we solely focusing on them as a solution."
The MPD has made other changes to address the negative behavior downtown including adjusting parking, moving the waiting area for taxis and adding lights and cameras.
"We are sensitive that they're going to be individual impacts, but we also have to balance the individual impact with the societal or area impacts," Freedman said.
The proposal also eliminates specific vending zones and allows the police department and vending coordinator to determine the locations for late-night vending during the next five years. Blake-Horst said there are many opportunities in the city for vending post-dinner time but not into the early hours of the morning, citing partnerships with restaurants and community events.
If adopted, Blake-Horst said this would not necessarily eliminate the possibility of late-night vending hours in the future.
“If the environment changes in different ways, it doesn't mean that this will never be a possibility again in the world, but we need to let it settle for now and take a new perspective,” Blake-Horst said.
The proposal is on the City Council's agenda for Tuesday.