If you’re a fan of contentious community meetings, you might want to make your way to Eastern Market’s north hall this evening, where D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) will present a plan he introduced Tuesday to overhaul the beloved market’s governance.
Since the devastating 2007 fire, the market has been managed directly by the District government. The city, however, wants out of the market-running business, and a task force has been at work for nearly a year trying to come up with a governance structure that involves the community, customers and the vendors located not only inside the historic Adolph Cluss-designed building, but also the street vendors that operate outside the building and at a lot outside nearby Hine Middle School.
What the task force recommended, and what the legislation would implement, is the establishment of a quasi-public Eastern Market Preservation and Development Trust. It would be governed by an 11-member board consisting of three members appointed by vendors, two mayoral appointees, one appointee from the Council chairman, and five members appointed by the Ward 6 Council member. That would replace a oft-criticized 1997 law governing the market’s operations — including an provision that offers a right of first refusal to the market’s 1997 tenants to renew their leases with limited rent increases.
This has been interpreted as a “grandfather clause” guaranteeing longtime vendors space for time immemorial. That Wells’s bill eliminates the clause has some up in arms. “This threatens to change the market to something else, like a Dean & DeLuca, instead of having family-owned businesses that have been there for mucho decades,” said Ellen Opper-Weiner, a Capitol Hill resident who has been involved on an Eastern Market advisory board.
I’ve heard Dean & DeLuca specifically mentioned as a market-killing bogeyman several times today, perhaps because the upscale grocer occupies another historic D.C. public market, on M Street NW in Georgetown.
Wells says the fears of massive change are unfounded and notes that under the new structure, the vendors will have an actual seat at the table when decisions are made.
”The folks who are there will have more authority than they ever had,” he said Wednesday.
The market, Wells argued, is “organic” and added that the board of the new Trust, once established, would be able to re-establish the grandfather clause if it saw fit.
His plan is also facing criticism from one of the operators of existing flea markets that operate on a parking lot across 7th Street SE from the market.
Carol Wright, who operates the Saturday flea market under a separate contract with the city, said she is afraid the new board will push vendors out — noting that the three seats reserved for them could easily be outvoted.
Wright fears the board will forsake current vendors and seek tenants willing to pay higher rents — like Dean & DeLuca! — though it is not at all clear what benefit the nonprofit board would reap by pursuing windfall revenues. The matter is complicated by the fact that the flea markets will be evicted from their lot sometime in the next two years, as Hine’s redevelopment proceeds. The new board, Wright fears, might choose to push her aside and run the flea market itself, upending the current, successful mix of vendors.
Wright and her vendors are planning to flood the 6 p.m. meeting to register their displeasure. “We have legislation that works,” she said. “We have a market that works. We have a flea market that works.”