Failure to Make Upgrades Cited in Eastern Market Fire

Mike Bowers of Bowers Fancy Dairy Products, one of the vendors affected by the Eastern Market fire, makes a point during a news conference.
Mike Bowers of Bowers Fancy Dairy Products, one of the vendors affected by the Eastern Market fire, makes a point during a news conference. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bureaucratic red tape prevented the Eastern Market from getting new electrical work and a sprinkler system years ago, according to an advisory panel on the landmark's renovation. Those improvements might have prevented this week's devastating fire, authorities said.

D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said yesterday that the blaze that destroyed much of the interior of the 134-year-old market early Monday probably was caused by an electrical problem. He said a sprinkler system would have brought the fire under control before firefighters arrived at the building on Capitol Hill.

"The likelihood is that the fire would have been controlled with one single sprinkler head," Rubin said.

The Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, established by statute in 1998 to coordinate community input, recommended four years ago that city officials upgrade the electrical wiring and three years ago that the city-owned landmark get a sprinkler system, panel members said yesterday.

D.C. officials acknowledged the recommendations but said the city decided to wait and include the wiring and sprinklers as part of an overall restoration of the market -- planned to begin this summer.

"Getting to the renovation plans was such a difficult and hard-fought process, with concerns about how it was impacting vendors and community, that it was all packaged into one global restoration plan," said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who has lived on Capitol Hill for 14 years.

In the meantime, the city spent about $1.56 million for other capital improvements, most notably an outdoor shed adjacent to the market, officials said.

"The shed became the easier thing to do that didn't tear into issues like North Hall versus South Hall, and farmer vendors versus craft vendors," Tangherlini said. "The Middle East is more straightforward than this."

As a result of the fire, the original $3 million construction cost of the renovations is likely to grow to as much as $30 million, said Lars Etzkorn, director of the Office of Property Management.

The recommendations on wiring and sprinklers were made to the Office of Property Management, which is responsible for capital improvements to Eastern Market. All of the city's public structures built after 1973 are required to have sprinkler systems. Older buildings that undergo major renovations are also required to have sprinklers.

The recommendations were not acted on immediately because of "bureaucratic red tape," said Monte Edwards, who chairs the capital improvements subcommittee of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee.

"We had recommended that the wiring be upgraded," Edwards said.

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