Developer Peddles a New Vision for an Old Market

Sang Oh Choi, right, with his son Jae, is heading a proposal to add housing and retail to the Capital City Market but still preserve space for vendors.
Sang Oh Choi, right, with his son Jae, is heading a proposal to add housing and retail to the Capital City Market but still preserve space for vendors. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The Capital City Market has been a singular destination in Northeast Washington for 75 years, a place where shoppers and restaurateurs buy their fruits and vegetables wholesale, where butchers in white aprons slice meat and poultry, where T-shirt vendors get their stock to peddle to tourists downtown.

Now, with a new Metro station open nearby and property values soaring in the neighborhood, a developer wants to rebuild the market as a mini-city of condominiums, townhouses, offices, retail, a YMCA and new quarters for the wholesalers and vendors who have built businesses there.

The team driving the proposal for New Town at the Capital City Market is led by Sang Oh Choi, 60, a Korean-born wholesaler who has built a successful produce business at the market and who owns more than two dozen properties within the 23-acre parcel, between Second and Sixth streets NE and bounded by Florida and New York avenues.

"We're trying to create a better community," said Jae Choi, 29, the developer's son, who helps run the family's Sam Wang produce business. "Some buildings are abandoned. There's crime. We're trying to clean up the market."

The project's supporters include D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), whose district encompasses the market, and John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and Choi's attorney. The development, Orange and Ray say, will provide what is lacking in new construction: affordable housing for working and middle-class Washingtonians.

"This project can be a model in terms of showing folks how to get in front of this issue on gentrification, how to provide housing in the city on a prime location where a bus driver or a schoolteacher or fireman know they have no chance of staying," Ray said.

The project, which the developer estimates would cost $900 million, faces a variety of hurdles, not the least of which is that Choi must persuade the District to rezone the industrial and commercial parcel to allow for residential construction. He must also persuade neighboring Gallaudet University to sell two large parcels that fall within the proposed development.

Then there's the matter of Sang Oh Choi's brother, Philip, who owns a sprawling building on the site that houses a farmers market, where dozens of vendors sell a wide variety of wares: lamb chops, pigs' feet, socks, wide-brimmed hats. Philip Choi has expressed opposition to the proposal, according to Ray, although the attorney said he expected that the brothers would eventually agree on the plan. Philip Choi did not respond to several telephone calls seeking comment.

He is not the only property owner with whom Sang Oh Choi will have to negotiate. Nick Deoudes, a real estate broker who manages properties for six owners within the development site, said he fears that the project would force many of the merchants out of business. He dismissed the developer's vision of opening a new market as "window dressing" meant to "appease" the proprietors.

"Where is [Sang Oh Choi] going to cram all these people?" Deoudes asked. "Who is going to want to live there, with tractor-trailers stacked up in the street? It's going to be a market or a residential development, but it can't be both."

The proposal already has made some of the business owners apprehensive. John Obeng, who leases space from Choi at the market for his African grocery, said he has begun looking for a new place because he fears he will be forced out. "I'm making preparations in case that happens," he said.

But Ray said that Choi is committed to maintaining a market, adding that the merchants would be invited to invest in the development and that they could relocate to what he projected would be 600,000 square feet of new warehouses on the site. "This project is designed to let them stay," Ray said.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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