Fenty Pledges Funds for Eastern Market Restoration

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007; 11:40 AM

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty today said it will take 18 to 24 months and up to $30 million to rebuild "our beloved Eastern Market" after a devastating three-alarm fire yesterday.

Fenty pledged to find money for the project, and offered a raft of city assistance to keep displaced vendors solvent while the rebuilding takes place.

"We will have to identify exactly where we will get those dollars," Fenty said at a morning news conference outside the red-brick complex that has drawn generations of locals and tourists to this corner of Capitol Hill.

He said at least part of the money to rebuild both the city-owned market and the Georgetown branch of the public library -- which was severely damaged in a separate blaze yesterday-- could come from surplus tax revenues the city collected last year. Those revenue estimates are expected to be finalized by chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi later this month.

Acting D.C. fire chief Dennis L. Rubin said an arson team, including a dog trained to sniff out chemicals used to start fires, combed the marketplace yesterday and found no evidence the fire was set. He said investigators believe the blaze was accidental and started with an electrical problem.

An electrical engineer will inspect the building today to try and find the exact origin, Rubin said. Building inspectors will assess the structural viability of the complex, to determine whether activities planned for just outside the building can go on and whether vendors can enter the scorched South Hall to salvage belongings.

The news conference included city administrator Dan Tanglerhini, a Capitol Hill resident and market regular, Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells and dozens of other officials from the fire department and city government.

Fenty said the clock would start ticking as of today on the effort "to restore this building 100 percent to its architectural and historic splendor." All 14 vendor stalls -- where meat, produce, cheese, seafood, bakery goods and homey breakfast and lunch fare had been sold -- were destroyed in the blaze.

Well's lauded the city's quick action to launch a rebuilding plan, and said the market more than deserved it.

"Eastern Market is a place where our whole community comes together . . . a source of tremendous pride for all of us," Wells said. "We're all anxious. We don't want to see piles of bricks gathering dust. We don't want to see plans sitting on shelves, being dithered about."

To prevent such stagnation, Fenty named a city official to act as project manager for the rebuilding effort and focus on pushing it forward. He said the plans would incorporate proposals for a renovation of the market which had been worked on for months and were close to completion.

While the market is rebuilt, Fenty said, every effort will be made to find alternative space from which vendors can sell their products. He said the city planned to suspend the vendors' rent payments and would try to forgive their most recent quarterly tax bill to ease the financial impact of the fire.

Fenty said the city will provide case workers to help vendors negotiate local and federal government assistance programs. And he touted the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, a locally run nonprofit, for immediately launching a fund to benefit the market and its vendors.

City officials emphasized that Eastern Market's outdoor flea market will continue this Saturday as always, and that the neighborhood's 44th annual Market Day festival will go on this Sunday as scheduled.

"We do not want to miss a weekend. We don't want to break that string," said Wells, referring to the market's distinction as the city's oldest continually operating market.

He also appealed to vendors to stick with the city, and the market, until it can reopen.

"We don't want you to go anywhere. We want you to be the first folks to cut the ribbon, to come back into the market," Wells said, singling out some of the vendors whose families have operated at the market for generations. "It's your market too."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company