When it comes to merchandise, Ghazi Alrashed, a street vendor in downtown Washington, prefers trendy purses and watches. His booth, however, is another story. To keep down costs, he constructs it every morning with weathered wood panels, rusted metal clamps and a worn plastic tarp.
The result, Alrashed admits, is not pretty. "But it's all I need to do business," he said.
Not for long, though. In an effort to clean up what city leaders say is an unruly and unattractive vending system, the District has hired a nonprofit group to develop new design standards for downtown food carts and souvenir stands.
Under a plan approved by the city this month, the Public Space Planning and Management Corp., the nonprofit group hired by the city, will launch a year-long demonstration across 35 downtown blocks, teaming up architects and street merchants to upgrade existing vending units.
Within the designated area, the group will try to phase out street vending's most unsightly features, such as dingy backyard water coolers and hard-to-read handwritten signs. It will map out new vending locations, based on pedestrian traffic and compatibility with existing retailers. And it will propose such concepts as vending booths that double as bus shelters and sidewalk food stands with tables and chairs.
Officials from the city and from Public Space Planning and Management say it's unclear how much more it will cost vendors to operate under the new system. Public Space Planning and Management was created by the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, whose budget is funded by self-imposed fees on property owners, and three groups that represent dozens of vendors and their suppliers. The BID will contribute at least $25,000 in start-up money to Public Space Planning and Management, plus staffing. The city will contribute $25,000, said David A. Clark, director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The plan represents the first major restructuring of the District's vending system in 20 years -- one city leaders and some urban planning experts say is overdue. High-end shops, apartments and restaurants have sprouted up across downtown Washington over the past decade, but the city's street vendors "have not kept pace," according to a recent report from the city.
"It's trashy now," said W. Kent Cooper, the architect of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and a consultant on the downtown vending project. "Vending in Washington does not live up to its potential."
There are 810 licensed vendors in the District, and an estimated 100 operate downtown. The District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issues vending licenses, but there is little oversight of cart design and location.
"Our standards are pretty minimal," Clark said. "There is opportunity for significant improvement." Staff at the nonprofit group said sprucing up carts and booths will make street vending more profitable.
But vendors appear skeptical. In 1998, the city passed a moratorium on new vending licenses, a move merchants widely viewed as an effort to drive them out of business.
"They want to control us," said Abrehet Tesfamichael, who has operated a hot dog cart at 12th and F streets NW for eight years. Her biggest fear: She will be forced to move her cart, losing her regular customers who swing by every day for soda, candy and fruit.
Public Space Planning and Management said it will rely heavily on input from vendors. Three of its 13 board members will be vendors, according to a proposal the group submitted to the city. Ted Walker, a street vendor and founder of the DC Vendors Caucus, a trade group representing 60 street merchants, has been asked to serve as its vice chairman.
"It will not be 'You have to paint your cart blue, you have to build it this high,' " Walker said. "It will be collaborative."
Urban planning experts cautioned that the nonprofit group's close ties to the BID could pose a conflict of interest. Downtown property owners, they said, have a stake in restricting the expansion of vending, which competes with their retail tenants.
Mitchell Duneier, a sociology professor at Princeton University and the author of "Sidewalk," a study of book and magazine vendors in New York, called the relationship between property owners and vendors "inherently antagonistic."
But the BID said it wants to enhance vending, not curtail it.
In the demonstration area, the nonprofit group will ask vendors to sign agreements governing everything from their business hours to the operation of their booths, according to a copy of the proposal.
The group will map out legal locations for vendors, trying to minimize disruptive relocations. Architects and designers will team up with vendors to upgrade their carts and booths, with the nonprofit group possibly offering funds to defray the cost, said Matt Hussman, public space manager at the downtown BID.
The city's contract with Public Space Management and Planning is for one year, but it can be renewed for up to three years. The city will retain ultimate authority over vendors during the demonstration.
While it tinkers with existing vendors, the nonprofit group will consider a range of long-term solutions. One proposal: making kiosks permanent fixtures on the sidewalk, constructed from all-weather materials such as steel or aluminum. That would eliminate one of the biggest design challenges facing street vendors -- the need to quickly build and take down their vending stands every day. Under the law, vendors cannot leave their stands out overnight.
As a result, they must use lightweight, easy-to-assemble materials that can fit into the trunk of a car. Several D.C. vendors said they construct their booths with products they can find in Home Depot and Lowe's -- wood panels, metal grates, plastic clamps and swaths of cloth.
Permanent kiosk systems are already in place in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
The District's existing rules govern the size of vendor's carts -- that they be about seven by four feet, for example, with umbrellas never exceeding nine feet in diameter. But the rules gloss over design standards, only requiring that 80 percent of each cart and booth be one color.
So vendors improvise. On a rainy day last week, Brahim Idsassi, who sells watches, wallets and sunglasses at the corner of G and 12th streets NW, had attached two open umbrellas to the top of his stand and draped a large white tarp from his stand to a nearby hot dog cart.
"It keeps everything dry," he said.
The city passed its 1998 moratorium on new licenses in response to the growth of street vending downtown while it examined changes to the city's street vending system. But over the next five years, the city issued no major changes to vending rules, said David Toland, special assistant in the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
There was a "lack of staff capacity," to push reform, Toland said.
With a moratorium in place, no new vendors could gain entry into the business, and between 1998 and 2003, the District lost nearly 400 vendors.
In 2003, Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, assembled a steering committee to reexamine the issue. As a result of the committee's work, the city hired Public Space Management and Planning to reorganize downtown vending.
"We want an organization that is a little more nimble to try new approaches," Toland said. "We want outside expertise."
Safi Sadiq, who runs a souvenir booth at the corner of 15th and G streets NW, said vendors need guidance in designing their stands. He pointed to two plastic bins in front of his stand, which he said should be placed out of sight under existing city rules.
"Nobody likes how it looks now but we don't know what to do," he said. "We need a code to follow."