The Menino administration talks a great game of innovation, citing efforts to attract and retain the 20-to-34 year-old demographic. The city is poised to break ground for a waterfront “innovation center’’ where young entrepreneurs and the so-called creative class can mingle with potential investors. Yet faced with flesh-and-blood innovators, city officials run them to the ground.
Last year, Emerson College student Derrick Cheung knocked the socks off the judges at a college-sponsored entrepreneurship competition. He proposed retrofitting a box truck as a rolling retail shop for urban street gear, mainly t-shirts, hats, bracelets, hooded sweatshirts, and sweaters. Armed with the $5,000 prize for entrepreneurship and a $62 hawkers and peddlers license, Cheung and his business partner, Howard Travis, converted an old NStar truck into the Green Street Vault, complete with hardwood floors, vintage cabinets, and carefully selected inventory set off by cool lighting.
The fashion truck caught on quickly via social media to inform customers of sales locations on any given day. But Green Street Vault recently picked up another follower on Twitter — Boston’s code enforcement department. Last month, an enforcer slapped Cheung, 22, and Travis, 33, with $200 tickets for illegal vending on Newbury Street near Massachusetts Avenue. Wherever Green Street Vault ventured, city inspectors were sure to follow. Last Saturday, an inspector tracked down the truck on Commonwealth Avenue in Kenmore Square and socked Travis with a $250 fine for illegal vending and occupying city property without a permit.
Despite a penchant for piercings and tattoos, Cheung and Travis aren’t your Occupy Newbury Street types. They talk in terms of “business analytics.’’ And like any rational business owner in Boston, they aren’t looking to fight City Hall. They would be happy to negotiate authorized locations and pay a fee to the city similar to food trucks. But they can’t seem to get a straight answer on how or where to operate in the meantime, other than from a licensing official who recently told them to move their operation to New York or Chicago.
“We’re ready to work collaboratively,’’ said Baltimore native Cheung. “We love Boston. That’s why we’re here.’’
Part of the problem is the city’s outmoded hawkers and peddlers ordinance, rooted in the days of horse-drawn carts. An upgrade to the law in the 1970s didn’t help much. Today, peddlers are largely restricted from selling their goods from a vehicle or on foot between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. across a swath of the city extending from Park Drive to the waterfront, including Charlestown. Theoretically, peddlers can operate in the restricted areas after 8 p.m. But only if they move — get this — every five minutes.
That might have worked in the days of giddy-up horsey when parking wasn’t an issue in Boston. But how does the city expect a truck to abide by such a cockamamy law?
Planning officials in the Boston Redevelopment Authority are working with Green Street Vault and a handful of other retailers who want to sell non-food items from trucks. But officials say it will probably require a new ordinance — similar to the one for food trucks — that recognizes new ways of doing business. BRA officials also want to sit down with rent-paying storefront retailers to hear their concerns about competing with rolling retailers.
Cheung and Travis are already one step ahead of the BRA. They strategically chose to specialize in unique clothing by up-and-coming Boston-based designers whose styles aren’t generally carried in area stores. And they scoped out a “dead spot’’ at the western end of Newbury Street where retailers have closed up shop of late. The idea, said Travis, was to create a “buzz’’ and foot traffic that would also benefit nearby stores.
It was working, too. Dustin Watson, who manages the Johnny Cupcakes fashion store on Newbury Street, said Green Street Vault was helping to create a “sense of community’’ among cutting edge clothiers and bringing new customers to the area. But other merchants and their representatives along Newbury Street aren’t so expansive. They see the truck, they call the cops.
For now, Green Street Vault has pretty much ground to a halt. Cheung and Travis can’t risk further fines or the threats to impound their vehicle.
It’s still a long and bumpy road for Boston’s innovators.