In the dark, dank basement of a vacant Radio Shack in downtown Washington, Matt Hussman is building what could be an antidote to the city's slapdash, miniature-White-House-selling souvenir stands, one piece of freshly sawed plywood at a time.
So far, for general merchandise, he has come up with this: a $600 booth with a sleek canvas umbrella (to protect against the rain), a few metal racks (to hang knockoff designer purses) and a couple of sawhorses (to prop the whole thing up).
No, it won't be Bloomingdale's on the sidewalk, but the staff of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District sees it as the first step toward standardizing, and eventually sprucing up, the capital's unruly and at times unsightly hodgepodge of food carts and memorabilia stands.
"Vending is stuck right now," said Hussman, public space manager at the Downtown DC BID, whose budget comes from fees paid by property owners. "There has not been change in years."
Under a plan approved by the city earlier this year, a nonprofit group funded by the BID will launch a year-long demonstration across 35 downtown blocks, teaming architects and street merchants to upgrade vendor carts.
The test zone encompasses some 60 vendors who must sign operating contracts with the nonprofit group, called the Public Space Planning and Management Corp. Thirty-three sell food, 22 sell general merchandise and five sell flowers.
Within the designated area, the group will try to phase out street vending's worst features, such as beat-up backyard coolers and rusted metal clamps.
Hussman's concept, still a work in progress, could hit the streets as early as next month. Hussman, who is spearheading the vending project for the BID, said his prototype will be given to a handful of vendors, at no charge, to jumpstart the program. Hot dog stands and ice cream carts will also be upgraded.
While it tinkers with the carts out there now, the Public Space Planning and Management Corp. will also consider a range of long-term solutions such as creating permanent kiosks 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 assemble and then take down their stands every day. Under the law, vendors cannot leave them out overnight.
The nonprofit group says it relies heavily on vendor participation. "If we come in as big brother, we will never be successful," said Steve Moore, a marketing manager at the Downtown BID. The BID created the nonprofit with three groups that represent dozens of vendors and their suppliers. Three of its 13 board members will be vendors, according to a proposal the group submitted to the city
But not all vendors are eager for the upgrades. "I don't think I need to make any changes," said Mary Kangethe, who sells T-shirts, handbags, perfume, sunglasses and socks near the corner of 12th and F streets NW. "I think it's attractive," she said, waving her hand over her merchandise.
The simplicity of Hussman's prototype is intentional, relying on lightweight materials and an uncomplicated table-and-umbrella design. Vendors must assemble their booths every morning, carrying each component out of a truck, and what they need is ample selling space, not fancy flourishes.
"Pretty doesn't do anything," Hussman said. "What matters is value."
Will that philosophy turn off customers? The Downtown BID doesn't think so.
"This is not pristine. It's not antiseptic," Moore said. "People want this market experience."