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. Their 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 Market. 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. The 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.