The Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B Special Call meeting on the future of Eastern Market and Seventh Street SE took place Tuesday August 29th in a room packed with representatives of District government and government agencies, community organizations, stakeholders, press and concerned community members.
Barry Margeson, Manager of Eastern Market for the Department of General Services (DGS),described the weekend Eastern Market as not a single entity but an ecosystem that requires balance to function, describing how different managing groups have managed different spaces at different times.
DGS manages the indoor market including the outdoor plazas and sidewalks around the market, the plaza near Rumsey Aquatic center, and on the 200 block of Seventh Street SE.
Margeson said the Rumsey plaza hosts prepared food vendors whereas producers, growers and farmers are located under the shed near the marketplace. The 200 block of Seventh Street and the Eastern Market plaza space, he said, are reserved for arts, crafts, antiques and non-specific products, usually importers, he added.
DGS relies on a mayoral order and a District Department of Transportation (DDOT) permit for management of the public space.
Two separate management companies operate the Saturday and Sunday weekend flea markets under an agreement with DGS. They operated in the parking lot and athletic courts of the Hine School until 2015, but were temporarily moved to the 300 block of Seventh Street SE between C Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE until a space for them on the 700 block of C Street SE and an adjacent plaza are completed as part of the Hine Project. The block was closed by a mayoral order that expires October 30, when completion of the Hine Project is expected.
Margeson said that in exchange for the licensing agreement, the two companies pay $48,000 into DGS’s Eastern Market Fund and in return DGS pays $22,000 to DDOT in compensation for the loss of income from parking meters along the 300 block. Margeson said that DGS had negotiated the original contract with no research basis and currently broke even on the contract or suffered a minimal loss.
Margeson added that if the 300 block is to be used as market space in the future, the opportunity to program the space will be determined through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process. “We are required by law to charge fair market price,” Margeson said, noting that legislation governing Eastern Market applies to the entire market space with the exception of the North Hall rental of the space for community and arts events.
To that end, DGS has commissioned an appraisal for the various spaces from a private contractor. The report has been received for the indoor market space, and will be made public in the next few days. An appraisal of market rental prices for the 300 block will be completed by September 30, after which an assessment for the 200 block will be undertaken.
A resident later identified as an economist said he was struck by the fact that appraisals were being done separately. “What one component is worth is in part dependent on what surrounds it, and if the other two units are not functioning, the value presumably goes down.” He said that the outdoor market added value to the neighborhood, increasing property values and therefore property tax income for the District, an idea validated by a later speaker who identified himself as a resident who purchased in Capitol Hill after a weekend visit to Eastern Market.
Ellen Opper-Weiner, a resident and former member of Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC), said that in her research she found that DGS had applied to DDOT for a Temporary Occupancy Permit for the 200 and 300 blocks of Seventh Street and 600 block of C Street SE for a one year period ending July 24, 2018, which she said DDOT told her had been prepaid at a cost of over $113,000. She said, “I am shocked that we are having this meeting this evening to discuss whether or not the street is going to be closed; this permit was issued July 24, 2017.”
However, Margeson responded by saying that the application for the permit is done annually as a matter of form. Contracts between private market management and DGS in the 300 block that are dependent on DGS possessing a valid occupancy permit between July 24 and October 30, 2017.
He said the fees paid represented DDOT’s projected losses in parking meter revenue over the year, and had not been paid in cash, but rather by a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. During the meeting, DDOT Chief of Staff Todd McIntyre said $113,000 was the incorrect amount, and that it appeared the DDOT staff member had calculated meter losses for the entirety of the blocks rather than the meters on the streets closed by request. The MOU, he added, would reflect a different amount.
An MOU functions as a credit, the only way of exchanging money between two government agencies. If the street occupancy permit is unnecessary after October 30, Margeson said, the remaining credit to DDOT for parking meters would be reallocated to DGS. “We’re not going to pay for anything that we don’t use,” Margeson said.
Indoor merchants again spoke of the difficulty in conducting business as grocers when surrounded by vendors. Mike Bowers, owner of cheese shop Bowers Fancy Dairy Products located in the Eastern market South Hall, said the issue was not parking in particular but accessibility. He said that the previous weekend he had spent thirty minutes assisting a customer in a wheel chair who could not connect with her taxi because it was circling the market space, unable to determine where it could stop to collect the passenger.
Parking was a prominent issue, with some arguing that with the completion of the Hine project up to 200 spaces currently utilized by the construction workers on the project will be freed and, together with the availability of some of the 203 spaces in the parking garage attached to the project, the composition of parking near the Eastern Market will be completely altered.
Residents near the area said that although they had difficulty parking in front of their own homes on weekends due to market traffic, they nonetheless supported the street closure. One thirty-year resident considered the answer to be space management around the Market that would allow people to load their purchases. Another resident noted the accessibility of the market by metro, bike share and bus routes, saying, “I would not worry personally about a loss of parking.”
Commissioner Daniel Ridge (6B09) noted that Eastern Market was built in 1873 before the widespread use of the car and so has historically been closed to traffic, saying, “Eastern Market is the literal, actual functioning surviving blueprint of how we do this without a car. It shows us the way — it is the way.”
A merchant challenged Ridge, describing a scenario where, in one month, the streets in front of the 14th Street SE Safeway were closed and in the next the parking lot was filled with two hundred vendors who parked in the surrounding blocks, “by the third month you wouldn’t have to worry about it, [Safeway would] be out of business.”
“We’ve suffered for three years.”
Roberta Blanchard of Fairy Godmother Children’s Books and Toys (319 Seventh Street SE) said that the discussion was not just about parking. Reminding the assembled that many people lived in the area, she pointed to the noise and mess created by the markets. She said that the mess left behind by the markets attracted bold rats.
Blanchard said the two years of street closures under two different management companies have not been pleasant. “There’s been a lot of adversarial confrontations,” she said, pointing to at least three different street vendors who set up on the street directly across from brick and mortar businesses selling the same products. “It’s not a lottery, it’s not an accident, and it’s not fair,” she added, arguing that the street vendors do not pay the same licensing fees and taxes as brick and mortar stores, although the market management was profiting tremendously from the street closure.
Commissioner James Loots (6B03) advocated for a unified systematic plan, through which a more rigorous payment of licensing fees and taxes by street vendors could be enforced. He also thought that exclusivity clauses, protecting types of merchants from competition could be enforced that way, as such a solution would be difficult under multiple management teams. He called for an extension on the deadline for the decision so that such a systematic solution could be developed.
“Balance can solve these problems,” he said. “We just have to figure out how to achieve it.”
Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) agreed. He said that the conversation had demonstrated two things, “One undeniable fact, every single person in this room, and by extension everybody in our community, will fight tooth and nail for Eastern Market and what it means for our community. The other undeniable fact: Eastern Market is not easy.”
He has affirmed his position in favor of the street closure elsewhere, saying “While I think 7th Street should remain closed, preserving the pedestrian plaza and temporary retail for entrepreneurs and artists, the conversation around Eastern Market has to be about more than just parking — it needs to be a bigger discussion about growing and preserving so much of what makes Eastern Market such a special place.”
Allen described the weekend markets as “a very vibrant and exciting pedestrian corridor” that he said adds to the “walkability that makes Capitol Hill and Eastern Market an exciting place to be.” Allen said that the conversation was about more than the closure of Seventh Street, but about the whole of the market area. He praised what he called the strong passion in the room.
“I do believe everybody’s passion is pulling in the same direction, and that’s a positive sign that we can take away,” Allen said.
ANC Chair and Commissioner Chander Jayaraman (6B08) announced that the audio recording of the meeting would be posted on the website for ANC 6B. Commissioner Denise Krepp (6B10) proposed that documents, including the two Mayoral Orders closing the street, the letter from the flea market managers to DGS requesting an extension on the street closure and the appraisal determining market rate for rentals in the interior of Eastern Market, also be posted by Tuesday September 5. The documents are to be posted one week before the next regular meeting of ANC 6B, although the nature of the discussion at that meeting is unclear at this time.