Housing Complex

Eastern Market Going Dean & DeLuca? Unlikely.

There there now. (Photo from Eastern Market's facebook page)

Earlier this week, Councilmember Tommy Wells introduced legislation that would fundamentally alter the way Eastern Market operates. Pretty much everyone agrees that the change is necessary: Currently, the market is managed by the city, which can't respond quickly enough to funding and administrative needs that change day to day. Wells' bill would simply create a new governing board of community members and merchants, independent of the District, with the power to make key decisions.

Nonetheless, the news sparked a micro-uproar. Merchants fretted to the Post that Wells' bill was meant to make the market into a more profitable enterprise, i.e., kick all the old-timers out and bring in Dean & DeLuca. The anxiety spilled over into a meeting Wednesday evening at the Market's north hall, where merchants and vendors worried aloud that the protections they had thought might be spelled out in the legislation were nowhere to be found.

"It's an elite vision of the market that's driving the train," said Mary Belcher, a watercolorist who's sold at the market since 1995.

Much of the worry centered around the right of long-time businessfolk to return, if this new governing board felt like seeking higher rents from more competitive shops. The last time the Council passed major reforms to market governance, back in 1999, the existing businesses had been given the right of first refusal for their spots, and the role of a tenants council was specifically delineated. There are lots of ways in which that legislation wasn't followed to the letter—resulting in a very critical audit in 2002—but it did help achieve buy-in for the reforms by allowing vendors the security of knowing they wouldn't be forced to leave. It's worked: All but one of the 13 indoor merchants have been there since before 1997, although only about 30 percent of the outdoor merchants are the same.

Wells didn't include specific protections in his bill, in part because he contended that the new board should have the freedom to set its own rules, including getting rid of someone if the quality of their business declined. "If you start changing what you offer, does your grandfathering clause prevent the authority from being able to make a change?" Wells asked, delicately. "If someone stops coming to their space, what rights does management have? If someone doesn't play by the rules, what kind of leverage can it use?"

And indeed, there are are some who believe the market will have to adapt to remain viable at a time when Hill people have a whole lot more grocery stores to choose from. "I really worry about the competitiveness of this market going forward," warned Andrew Lightman, managing editor of the Hillrag newspaper. "If we don't change with the times, this place will die as a food market."

At the moment, though, that doesn't seem like a pressing concern. According to Bill Glasgow, owner of Union Meats and representative for the South Hall vendors, even though business has been down since the devastating 2007 fire, market management has been in the black, as vendors are gradually being given leases at a uniform rate of about $30 per square foot.

Still, he figures Wells will likely agree to include protections for merchants who had been grandfathered into the 1997 legislation. "I think he has do, don't you?" Glasgow said, after vendor upon vendor got up in the meeting to ask for some kind of assurance that they'd be able to stay. "You just created a lot of fear, and it's not necessary," he said. "It's peoples' livelihoods. It cuts deep."

Donna Scheeder, chair of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, also got the impression that longtime vendors would be taken care of. "I think that issue is going to go away," she said.

Charles Allen, Wells' chief of staff, couldn't say how exactly the bill would change—but existing merchants shouldn't be too worried. "[Wells] does not see those long term vendors going anywhere," Allen said. "The 1997 piece is absolutely one that Tommy's going to look at."

  • http://blogs.forbes.com/stephensmith/ Stephen Smith

    It certainly seems like political suicide to not grandfather everyone in, but I do hope that as attrition takes its toll, they rent the newly-open stalls at market prices, perhaps with the caveat that there can't be more than x number of chains or something like that. In other words, manage it like a private mall, where they mostly use straight auctions, with some exceptions (i.e., lower rent for anchors and stores with high spillover, limiting the amount of chains, balancing the types of tenants, etc.).

  • Urban Realtist

    Lydia,

    Small, local businesses and vendors need all the support, and especially positive media coverage, during the District's push to change DC's urban flair to resemble more of a suburban mall with big box stores. This push is at the expense of the pioneer businesses that built these unique, neighborhood shopping experiences.

    However, although you have given credence to Eastern Market vendors and their voice, you didn't do the same for H St long established businesses.

    Instead of writing objective and balanced articles about H St long-established businesses, which are mostly minority owned, you gave them a derogatory label, "old-timers", and vilified them and their business models. You even suggested that their businesses should give-up the ghost and the owners need to retire and sell their business to Joe Englert, who you baptisted as H St's saviour.

    To sensationalized one of the articles you wrote about H St, you reported that a H St "old-timers" paid $10.00 (yes ten dollars) for her building in the 80s, which was an absolute lie.

    If you knew real estate, you would have known the $10 amount listed on the "deed" is standard, industry practice and it is called the "consideration amount". The next time you need the price of a sold property, reference the loan docs, not the deed.

    Lydia, your true colors are becoming too apparent and your readers are getting hip to your "inability" to present unbiased, impartial and objective reporting on ALL of DC's housing issues.

    This ain't Smalltown USA, but a cosmopolitan city, with diverse communities that don't take kindly to you reporting untruths to shape public opinions and push some of your major advertisers' agenda for H St NE.

  • Really?

    To the worried long time vendors...make sure you have it in writing. Don't take nobodys word for it. Cause Tommy will change his tune.

  • Josh

    @Urban Realist: One difference I see between the existing Eastern Market Vendors, and the existing H St. NE shop owners, is that Eastern Market is thriving, where H St. was really struggling. I can't get behind propping up failing businesses just because they are minority owned, or have been around for a while.

  • Ben

    There is a fundamental question here, which seems to be: How much should a local government support a small, independently owned business when the businesses' financial model is not successful?

    By all accounts, Eastern market appears to be a financially viable entity--at least for now. And insomuch as the District went to great lengths to ensure that all of the vendors displaced y the 2007 fire could return to the renovated market hall, I think it's important to help ensure that the businesses that wish to remain there, and maintain a viable business model, are able to do so.

    But that's where grandfathering in specific businesses into the contract can create some headaches. Just because someone has "always" been there doesn't necessarily grant them a perpetual license to remain, regardless of how well (or poorly) their business is doing. The operators of Eastern Market don't need a food vendor equivalent of the Lincoln Theater on their hands.

  • Urban Realtist

    Josh,

    How would you know if the H St minority businesses are struggling? Have you spoke with their accountants or the business owners? You may not be interested in their goods or services but it seems as though their customers support their businesses.

    In addition, based on my observations I haven't seen going out-of-business signs popping up all over H St.

    I was on H St last week and I noticed how the barbershops were packed with customers, some guys were even waiting outside. Maybe that's your problem???????

    In addition, H St businesses are brick and mortar operations and that pay far more into DC's tax coffer than any vendor.

  • JoshNE

    Urban Realist,

    You're absolutely right. I can't speak to the status of any one particular business on H St., but certainly, as a neighborhood, it was not thriving. Hence the city's desire to put a lot of focus and money on "renewing" it.

    Shame on you for insinuating a racist motivation on my part. You know nothing about me.

  • 14thstcolhgts

    From a purely economic point of view, it should be remembered that much of the issue with the pre-existing, established businesses on H Street, just like those on 14th Street, endured several years of disruptive DC government generated construction blocking access to their business. Thus, these establishments started to
    lose clientele critical to the success of their bausinesses. While there is certainly no obligation by
    the City to "prop up" a business just because it is minority owned, the reality is that the businesses that
    suffered through all the Street Car contruction, etc. were primarily owned by minorities - there is a substantial difference in the premise to this analogy.

  • JoshNE

    14thstcolhgts,

    That's a good point. My understanding is that there was some sort of subsidy available to those business owners to defray the construction impact, but I could be wrong.

  • m

    One of the flea market vendors was getting people to sign some kind of petition by telling them that the new legislation would remove the Eastern Market farmers' line completely and replace the inside vendors with a Gap and a Gucci. She also said that she likes the current way the city runs Eastern Market.

  • Mike

    I, for one, welcome our new Gap overlords.

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