The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amidst building boom, an effort to save Washington’s last warehouse district

For 75 years independent merchants have worked out of warehouses in Northeast D.C. Should the warehouses be saved in the face of new development plans? (2006 staff photo)
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Warehouses that make up one of the District’s largest and last-remaining industrial areas — the Union Market section of Northeast — would be spared the wrecking ball under a newly submitted proposal by advocates who say the Depression-era buildings ought to be included in developers’ plans to transform the area into a posh mix of shopping and apartments.

The non-profit D.C. Preservation League filed an application in July to designate 70 different addresses in the 40-acre area between Fourth and Fifth streets, Florida Avenue NE and Penn Street NW, as a historic district, a recognition that would bar demolition.

Although the two-story, concrete frame buildings may not look like much, Rebecca Miller, the group’s president, said they represent some of the last remnants of the District’s fleeting industrial era.

“This is a really unique building type in D.C.  We don’t have a whole lot of them because, remember, we don’t have a lot of industries,” Miller said.

The market was built from 1929 to 1939 between Florida and New York avenues, adjacent to the rail lines north of Union Station, after the Federal Triangle office district replaced the city’s first farmers market on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Here, housed in commodious buildings, are merchants handling every type of food product — fruits, vegetables, meats, sea foods, poultry and dairy products,” read a Washington Post advertisement from Feb 15, 1931, announcing the opening of the first buildings.

Since then, the area has been known intermittently as the Florida Avenue Market or Capital City Market. It remains home to dozens of small, independent wholesalers selling ethnic foods, home goods and textiles. Many of the businesses have been run by families of Chinese or Korean descent going back generations.

Miller said the city has a relatively small collection of warehouses compared with others, such as Baltimore or Pittsburgh, that were home to more factories or mills. She said Washington ought to preserve those that remain, at least those in the center of the area that demonstrate a common classical revival architecture.

Saving the buildings, however, could disrupt a massive development planned by Edens, the South Carolina developer behind Union Market. Edens opened Union Market in 2012, quickly turning it into one of city’s most popular foodie destinations with artisanal breads, meats, cheeses and swanky cafes and restaurants.

In this 2012 video, Edens chief executive Jodie McLean explained her vision for the project.

In recent years Edens has acquired more than a dozen properties in the area and plans millions of square feet of new development including a series of luxury apartment buildings. In June, the company held a ceremonial groundbreaking at 1270 Fourth Street NE on a 432-unit apartment building, the Shapiro Residences, that will feature a Latin marketplace by Ecuadoran American chef Jose Garces.

In all, Edens and other developers are plotting 1,160 apartments and condominiums around Union Market plus a hotel, co-working office space and other projects. The companies have also asked the city to pay for up to $135.5 million in infrastructure to support the development, a request D.C. officials are still reviewing.

How the historic designation application will affect those expansion plans isn’t immediately clear. Miller said she had not spoken to Edens officials about the application, and Edens executives did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Steve Boyle, Edens managing director, has said in the past that with the infrastructure investment, the area could ultimately produce 8 million square feet of development, 20,000 jobs and $139 million in annual corporate, property and income tax revenue.

Those projects may well be hampered should the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board agree with Miller’s group that many of the existing warehouses ought to be fully or partly preserved. In the Historic District application, the Preservation League describes the warehouses as “a unique building type in D.C., and is distinguished architecturally for its uniform design scheme of individually built and privately owned buildings.”

From the application:

Union Market Terminal is an active wholesale market complex whose buildings have been altered over the course of its almost 100-year history. However, almost all of these alterations are minor and reversible, such as the filling in of open loading bays, windows and doors. The uniform design scheme, historic materials, feeling and association are all present as is a palpable sense of place that contributes to the city’s industrial heritage.

Miller said the proposal should not come as a surprise because the request was in tune with the District government’s vision for the area.

“These market buildings present an important and cohesive collection of uniformly designed and executed market structures — a rare survivor of this essential building type in the city today,” the Office of Planning said in a 2009 study.

There are currently 56 Historic Districts in D.C., including Georgetown, Mount Pleasant and Woodley Park. The designations require that private property owners follow more stringent — and generally more expensive —  rules for making changes or improvements to their buildings.

A public meeting has been scheduled to discuss the application Sept. 7.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz