Under the latest proposal for the future of the city-owned, 117-year-old Eastern Market, the farm-fair feel, smell and function may prevail.
For years, the brick building at Seventh and C streets SE has been perceived as both a priceless relic from Washington's past and a potentially profitable shell that could well accommodate a makeover akin to that of Georgetown Park or the Old Post Office Pavilion.
But the notion of a drastic overhaul has long angered Capitol Hill neighbors, who want no touristy extravaganza replacing fresh produce and meat stands.
Reports prepared by two commissions in the last five years have been moribund in city files. But now a third group, the Eastern Market Neighborhood Commission, has asked the city to spend about $3 million to make the run-down building more accessible and helpful to the community.
"I suspect that all the irritants of the past recommendations have been removed," said Peter Eveleth, who has served on all three commissions.
John White, spokesman for Mayor Marion Barry, said, "The mayor and council member Nadine Winter are committed to improving Eastern Market."
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission's report is under review by the Office of Business and Economic Development.
The market has food stalls in its south hall; food stalls, storage and a restaurant in its center hall; the Market 5 Gallery in its north hall, and a pottery plant on its western edge. On Seventh Street, an outdoor "farmers' line" features tables of foods, clothes and sundries, across from a former Safeway supermarket whose December closing helped shape the current proposal.
The commission recommends that the city build a second floor onto the north hall and move the gallery there. In the former gallery space would go a grocery store, selling canned goods, frozen foods, cleaning and pet supplies, and other items not available from current vendors.
Instead of closing on Sunday and Monday, the store would stay open daily and keep later evening hours.
The relocation of seafood wholesaling, trash and storage would yield an additional 1,200 square feet of retail space as well as a straight aisle through the market. The current vending areas would remain, but would be brought up to building code levels.
New indoor lights, restrooms and an elevator, and repairs to the surrounding sidewalks and street lights would encourage business, as would additional weekend parking, the report concluded.
Parking suggestions included the faculty lot of neighboring Hine Junior High and a small part of its ball field, and the existing lots of the Penn Medical Building and Citicorp Bank.
In 1982, when an Eastern Market study group used $80,000 in federal funds to write a report, the city's only apparent response was the 1985 appointment of another commission.
In 1986, that group proposed tripling the number of food vendors, building a mezzanine for diners and a stage for performers, and permitting beer and wine sales.
"There was such an outcry you cannot imagine," said Karen Walker, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B representative, whose single-member district includes the market.
The ANC voted to reject the $3.8 million plan -- which the city never implemented -- and formed its own task force. While it was at work, Barry and Winter (D-Ward 6) initiated another committee, composed of neighborhood interests. It adopted the ANC plan, and last month sent its report to Barry.
That report recommended that a nonprofit corporation manage the market and lease its 14,572 square feet of space at rates ranging from $18 per square foot for restaurant space to $7 per square foot for dry storage. It specifically disapproved beer and wine sales.
Though minuscule by supermarket standards, the 4,000 square feet available for grocery space would be "very viable" to accommodate a cooperative, according to Marc Elrich of the worker-owned Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op.
Elrich approached the commission on the possibility of opening a store that would also train neighborhood residents in management.
Meanwhile, commission members wait to see if the city adopts its proposal.
"I'm an eternal optimist," Eveleth said. "I've been proved wrong for 10 years."