Eastern Market Struggles With Its Identity

Proposal to Open 7th Street to Traffic Has Created Tension Between Merchants and Vendors

Proposal to Open 7th Street to Traffic Has Created Tension Between Merchants and Vendors

Mayor Fenty Closed 7th Street by Fiat After the Restored Market Opened in 2009

Mayor Fenty Closed 7th Street by Fiat After the Restored Market Opened in 2009

Inside Eastern Market, Sunday Afternoon, 3:30pm

Inside Eastern Market, Sunday Afternoon, 3:30pm

Few Drivers Heed the 1 Hour Time Limit For Parking in the 20 Spaces Behind the Market

Few Drivers Heed the 1 Hour Time Limit For Parking in the 20 Spaces Behind the Market

Eastern Market Struggles With Its Identity

Tension Between Inside Merchants/Outside Vendors on Market’s Direction

by Larry Janezich

The changing character of Capitol Hill is perhaps nowhere more evident than at Eastern Market.  Last Tuesday, the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC) heard a proposal by inside Market food merchants Bill and Tom Glasgow and Mike Bowers to re-open 7th Street outside the Market to traffic on Saturdays, allowing customer parking and improving access to their businesses.  The proposal was the result of a meeting of inside merchants to provide input to a business plan being formulated by EMCAC to give future direction and cohesion to Eastern Market as it attempts to come to terms with changing demographics, new development, competition, and tourism.

Bill Glasgow of Union Meats is the inside merchants’ representative to EMCAC; Tom Glasgow runs Market Lunch; and Mike Bowers runs the cheese and dairy shop.  The​ir ​proposal to open 7th Street is a contentious​ one​ because it would eliminate the 34 vending positions for Eastern Market’s arts and crafts vendors who currently set up on 7th Street on weekends.  The proposal is opposed by the 7th street vendors and their newly elected representative to EMCAC, Erika Rubel.  Local artist and 7th Street vendor Joe Snyder says that “accessibility will continue to be a problem in an increasingly dense city and the Market will have to deal with it in a creative way” – but this should not include the reopening of 7th Street.

According to EMCAC chair​ Donna Scheeder, “EMCAC is in the long process of gathering input which will also include community meetings and other opportunities for the community to provide a wide range of input for what should be the priorities for Eastern Market. This is preliminary to the drafting of a business plan which is what EMCAC will react to. We are a ways off from that.”

Still, the proposal and its opponents reflect a tension between older, established businesses and newer up-starts.  Few if any of other retailers have enjoyed more market-protection than Eastern Market merchants, who are grandfathered in and pay low to moderate rent; on the other hand, few have done more to establish the neighborhood as a commercial destination.​  Their counterparts on the outside of the market depend on foot-traffic and square footage, whereas inside the Hall merchants would prefer to see parking available to customers looking to take perishables and other goods home.

​​Before the Eastern Market fire and the subsequent closing of 7th street by mayoral fiat under Adrian Fenty, the North Hall accommodated up to 40 arts and crafts vendors on weekends.  With the reopening of the Market, vendors were moved to 7th Street and the North Hall became a gathering space accessible to the community, not only on the weekends, but during the week, especially by children’s caregivers and their charges.

Bill Glasgow said the 13 inside merchants are getting “strangled” because customers can’t get access – they have to park blocks away and walk to the market to buy food.  He believes that the Market’s becoming a tourist destination has hurt the business of the food merchants inside.  According to Glasgow, “Saturdays are starting to look like Sundays – all tourism.  At what point do you want to strangle us out of business?”

The Market has about 20 spaces for customer parking in the alley behind the market with a one hour time limit, but according to Glasgow, the parking is “not controlled at all,” adding, “We’ve been complaining for five years.  It is absolutely essential to have parking.  How can you have a food market without access?”  Looking ahead to the proposed​ Hine development, he notes that although public parking will be provided, 7th Street between C and Pennsylvania Avenue will be closed on weekends to accommodate the flea markets.

The proposed ​Hine development may present new ​and more acute ​challenges for the Marke​t​.  Stanton Development has mentioned Rodman’s – the family-owned chain of discount grocery/drug stores, with a selection of international foods, wine and beer – as a possible tenant for the new Hine development.

Eastern Market is currently being managed by DC’s Department of General Services.  Market Manager Barry Margeson did not respond to a request for comment.  Margeson continues to solicit new outside vendors, but Glasgow sees advertising for new vendors as indicative of rapid vendor turnover because “they’re not making any money – there are too many.”  The Market’s policy he says, is “strangling the outside vendors and us.”

Some market-​goers think that parking may not be the inside merchant’s entire problem.  ​T​he more traditional Eastern Market may be suffering in comparison with the recently opened Union Market in Northeast.   In addition, the increased quality of some of the products under the farmer’s line on Saturday heads off many potential customers before they get inside​, especially when inside goods do not excel in quality or offer competitive price points​.  Likewise, the Market’s “Fresh Tuesdays” has brought locally produced higher quality produce and cheese to the farmer’s line outside the Market on Tuesday afternoons.  ANC Commissioner Brian Pate is interested in seeing the farmer’s line opened one night a week for Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) providers.  CSA patrons pay upfront for shares of a local farmer’s harvest which are delivered to the customer.  Pate would like to see the farmer’s line opened up for these deliveries – which would to some degree increase the pressure on the inside vegetable merchants.

Since the demise of the Councilmember Tommy Well’s legislation providing for a new governing structure for Eastern Market, and with it, EMCAC’s proposal to consolidate under Eastern Market the control of the three separate outside vending operations (the Eastern Market vendors, Carol Wright’s Saturday and Michael Berman’s Sunday flea markets on the Hine parking lot) an element of mistrust has existed between Eastern Market’s outside vendors and EMCAC.  The Eastern market vendors see any consolidation as coming at their expense.  Vendor Joe Snyder characterizes the proposed consolidation as an “impractical merger of the three markets,” and raises the concern of the potential displacement of longtime Eastern Market outside vendors.

This is a critical time for the future of the Market.  It would seem that a good first step toward a partial remedy would be to enforce limited time parking in the alley behind Eastern Market. EMCAC and ANC6B – in their advisory capacities – may not be the vehicles for problem solving.  Given the lame duck status of Ward 6 Councilmember Wells and Mayor Gray, it is uncertain how much leadership they will or can provide – but in any event, the issues seem to require the attention of the executive branch rather than the city council.




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25 responses to “Eastern Market Struggles With Its Identity

  1. Sharon

    They need to install parking meters in the back, and have normal enforcement. That should solve the problem of people camping in the parking spots.

  2. Jean

    The outside non-craft vendors are not selling anything people want to buy. How many rayon scarves does someone need? I recently overheard a woman say, “This place has every pashmina known to man.” The flea markets used to be primarily furniture and related household goods and smalls, but not any longer. The Saturday one used to be particularly good; more ready-to-use items than the Sunday stuff, which had more project-ready items. They are hardly worth visiting anymore.

    • sarah

      What’s more, the quality is not there. I wouldn’t buy rayon or any synthetic fabric. What about all natural materials and something handmade? Handmade and natural fabrics with unique design is the sort of product that I associate with a market – not the same thing I can get – even more cheaply – in a chain store on the high street.

  3. I have recommended parking meters for more than one year, maybe two. Bill Glasgow has been the strongest opponent. I got so angry at the last meeting I attended about this that I haven’t been motivated enough to attend the current meetings.

    It’s not clear that “lack of parking” in the front makes much difference. For one, the spaces on the west side of the street were used by the vendors, and on the east side of the street, there were no meter restrictions on Saturdays and Sundays, so the parking spaces hardly turned over.

    FWIW, since 2007 I’ve argued for a Master Plan and market study, and since 2009 or 2010 a Capitol Hill Destination Development and Management Plan.

  4. The constituent elements of Eastern Market, the inside merchants, the farmers and the arts/crafts vendors are so interdependent that they are often described as three legged stool. Draft fiscal year 2013 actuals show rents paid by inside merchants, occupying a heated/cooled building six day a week totaling $251,254.00; the rents paid by farmers and arts/crafts vendors, out of doors two days a week, totaled 344,479.00, and income from the North Hall rentals totaled $198,874.00.

    As a Capitol Hill artist and Eastern Market vendor, I am proud to be part of a system that supports the Market along with most everyone else in the community in one way or another. If our inside brethren are feeling pain, I can feel it too, but its nothing like the pain of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  5. Pat

    Re the suggestion that ​”the more traditional Eastern Market may be suffering in comparison with the recently opened Union Market in Northeast.” Unlikely. They cater to different audiences. People who shop inside Eastern Market appreciate its old-timey ambiance, and the prices are considerably lower than those at Union Market. Also, many live on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of Eastern Market. Union Market is tres moderne, shops are very upscale, and prices are high.

    • anon

      The two are different. UM is more of a dining destination with some selective groceries as a secondary market. EM is primarily a grocer model with very few dining options. The popularity of UM may reflect more demand for consuming prepared food on site than EM which has little eat-in beyond the lunch counter and nothing approaching the quality or breadth of UM on prepared food (not to mention beer).

      • sarah

        I think that Union Market’s success is dampening the ability of EAstern Market to keep up. I go to Union Market to buy cheese and a few veges – for example – because Union Market feels like a bit more of a “full package” destination which I can combine with having brunch with friends or a glass of wine. Eastern MArket – except with the new Noma Creamery and Wine bar has no terribly nice place to sit and linger and, as pointed out by someone above, the product quality inside – including meats and fish – is not very good. If you tell me that Hines plans to bring in a Rodmans or whatever, I can tell you, I will never be back at Eastern Market – as cute as it is because they are not catering for my demographic. Someone above says that people go to EM for the old time feeling – I think that is a mistaken observation. Union Market is old and stylish and more upmarket and hip than Eastern Market and that is why it beats it hands down. EM needs to recognize and adapt and fight Hines against a Rodmans.

  6. Michael

    Re Joe Snyder
    Assuming your rent figures are correct, then the indoor vendors are paying lease rates that are far below current market rates. Since Eastern Market is owned by the city, it would not be a stretch to argue that the vendors are already receiving subsidies from taxpayers. Why should taxpayers be on the hook to provide parking as well?

    Many of the indoor vendors (including Bowers) might want to experiment with some more modern business practices as a means to improving revenues, such as clearly displaying prices and accepting credit cards.

  7. kandc

    The three groups should quit arguing and trying to do each other in.

    If the Metro square were designed properly with a diversion (and narrowing) of Pa Ave. around the square (so we would have a real functioning community square), you could accomodate the outside (non-food) vendors there and just have Eastern Market (inside and out) reserved for food and food related items.

    • sarah

      This is a great idea. That way you would also join up the various attractions in Eastern Market across a slightly bigger land area and make much better use of that square where the metro opens up. This is a very good idea. Perhaps KANDC should be somewhere on a committee for the markets.

  8. E. Masquinongy

    I find the “we need parking for perishables” argument to be unconvincing.

    Parking around there has been impossible for years; still, the inside market is so crowded on Saturdays and Sundays that you can’t move through the thicket. Most of the inside customers are tourists, impulse buying a snack or odd item, but there are plenty of regular customers from the neighborhood (like me) that approach on foot and spend $50 on staples, and carry it home.

    The parking behind the market is too small to be of much use. Meters will help, but bear in mind there are only like 10 spaces there, less than 10% of the number of customers inside the market on any given weekend.

    I think that this is unnecessary infighting. The inside and the outside markets are symbiotic, and each should recognize that they need the other. They should be more concerned with the changes coming with the Hines construction.

  9. Katie

    Perhaps the Metro track work as more to do with this than parking. As someone who lives in the District but not within walking distance of the market, I’ve pretty much stopped going because I know that it will take me at least an hour with these 20 min headways.

  10. Corey H.

    The following sentence pretty much explains all of this discussion and the current (declining) state of the inside vendors at eastern market: “Few if any of other retailers have enjoyed more market-protection than Eastern Market merchants, who are grandfathered in and pay low to moderate rent.”

    Without paying market clearing rent, the vendors have no incentive to improve their product. No competition from outside to challenge and cause innovation. No reason to help cultivate a larger vendor population outside. No reason not to fight for parking. No reason to make the entire market area a destination for anyone not buying their products. All the while seeking to maintain or increase their monopolistic profits.

    It’s all perfectly logical to keep fighting for more subsidies and less competition of course. I sure hope our lame duck and incoming council members and mayors reject any proposal to open 7th street outright.

  11. whoa_now

    Whoa – I would actually go the opposite way and make 7th street a ped mall all week long and let the restaurants move more tables outside. Open up C street to cars for the crossection…but I find it hard to believe that the parking spots would help business inside. – A) not really all that many spots – 30? B)Unless you make it 15 min paid parking..I doubt you would be able to tell the “regular” customers – buying staples of meat/produce from the tourist who can now park -walk around for an hour and then leave. Sounds like a canard. See if the indoors vendors will pay mkt rate rent and have the parking returned. Somehow I doubt they will agree.

    Honestly – say there are 30 spots at an hour each – that’s only 240 potential customers for the day? You want to get rid of the outdoor vendors for that? Stop bowing down to the imaginary car customers. Figure out what you can do to attract the peds.

    • anon

      I think the EM indoor vendors serve an older demographic which have shopped there for a long time. They’re dismayed that their core clientelle can’t navigate the neighborhood by on weekends car like they once did to due to larger crowds and the street closure. The tourists aren’t buying raw meat and fish, but they clog up the market and make it tougher to navigate for everyone else.
      I don’t agree with this POV, but I think that’s what’s motivating it. If the market has shifted to tourists, maybe the vendors need to better adapts and sell products that appeal to this crowd. The food trucks and stands do phenomenal business right on their doorstep.

      • whoa_now

        but that is the failure of the argument. The crowds are going away. the clog up of the mkt will still be there. If they don’t like it they won’t shop there. Parking is a canard.

      • whoa_now

        “the crowds aren’t going away”

      • anon

        that’s right — the parking situation doesn’t seem to hurt the crowds at all, and they’re dropping $$ somewhere. The indoor vendors have been virtuarly the same as long as I can remember (nearly 2 decades). I’m also willing to be Rodman’s would do just fine across the street.

      • E. Masquinongy

        I have shopped at Eastern Market, almost every week, for 17 years. Weekend parking has truly been impossible for that long, at least. Parking is difficult in a 3-block radius, from 5th to 10th Streets.

        The vendors lost the weekend “perishables” customers, that needed to park nearby, decades ago — probably shortly after the craft market first opened, in the early 80s. Those days are gone.

  12. anon

    I wish the market would open up to different types of vendors. It’s overly skewed towards butchers/fishmongers and the smell is overbearing. I find Union Market a much more pleasurable experience.

    • kandc

      I can’t imagine what you are talking about. The place is clean and smells only of good product. If you like Union Market, you have a place to go–we don’t need another one just like it at Eastern Market.

      Thinking like this is what ruined Fanuil Market in Boston. they now have only fast food chains and T shirts and baubles. We DO need the food products the Market sells (both inside and out)–although I agree that the vegetables could be much better quality inside and often don’t reach the level of the outside veggies.

      • anon

        sadly, it’s better than the pre-AC days, but it’s still unpleasant on a crowded summer day (or a cold winter one). I’d be happy with a well rounded market that had a fuller range of products beyond meat and fish. Don’t need any baubles.

        I’m sure the indoor EM apologists will also complain one day about Rodmans siphoning their business.

  13. Eric

    I agree with Whoa_now. I love that 7th street is closed on weekends and in fact wonder why it doesn’t stretch to PA Ave. I think you’d need to be crazy to try and drive down 7th on a Saturday/Sunday. Opening 7th street back up to drivers would likely have the opposite impact on me visiting inside the market. It’s nice to be able to stroll down the street. The sidewalks get too jammed up with people to navigate.

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