Officials Seek Input for Temporary Home for Eastern Market

Posted May 8, 2007 at 5:50pm

Requests for quick action, transparent governance and clean restrooms filled Hine Junior High School on Monday night, after hundreds of Capitol Hill residents showed up to a city meeting on the temporary relocation of indoor Eastern Market vendors.

When a fire gutted the market’s South Hall last week, residents voiced worry over where the local cheese, meat and candy vendors would set up shop during the months or years it will take to rebuild the historic structure. Their concern was clear Monday: So many people showed up that Washington, D.C., officials had to open a second room and hold two simultaneous meetings.

“The turnout in this room demonstrates what we knew since I got a call that there was a fire,” said Mayor Adrian Fenty (D). “We knew at that moment that the most treasured building was damaged and this meant a ton to the community.”

Officials plan to set up a temporary structure for the 14 vendors that sold food in the South Hall. Given three choices for its location — on Seventh Street Southeast, on the Eastern Market Metro Plaza or on the Hine school lot — residents and vendors overwhelmingly said they supported Hine. The South Hall merchants handed out a statement before the meeting outlining why they chose the school; among their reasons were the proximity to the existing market (Hine sits catty-corner to it) and better parking and loading facilities.

“Basically we just want to stay in this area so we can just run our business,” said Melvin Inman, who owns Market Poultry. Placing the temporary market away from Seventh Street could hurt other outdoor businesses and split the market in two, he said. And putting a large building in the middle of Seventh Street could prove difficult for pedestrian traffic and the next-door construction of the permanent market.

A decision on the building’s location could be made as soon as next week, Fenty said. The tactic is quick and simple: City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in an interview that the structure should cost less than $1 million and will take about two months to complete. Although the city has not decided where to buy the pre-made building, it will include plumbing, electricity and refrigeration. All sounded reasonable to many residents, who discussed the design at tables of about 10 people and then wrote their responses on questionnaires.

“It’s amazing. It’s really breathtaking how quickly the city is moving on this,” said Robin Snyder, a resident who visited the market two to three times a week. “And it’s really reassuring.”

Residents also discussed closing Seventh Street between C Street Southeast and North Carolina Avenue on the weekends, just like it was closed last weekend. With the South Hall closed and the temporary structure taking up the Hine lot, some said that the outdoor merchants needed the extra room.

As for the real Eastern Market, city officials have said it will be rebuilt in 18 to 24 months — a timeline Tangherlini called “reasonable but aggressive.” But it has taken decades for vendors and city officials to agree on renovations. Of the about $4 million of city and federal funds set aside for fixing the market, more than $1.5 million has been spent for design proposals and the construction of a shed, according to the Office of Property Management.

Residents complained about this slow process Monday night, and some laid blame on the OPM, which has been overseeing the renovations. Others complained among each other about Eastern Market Venture Inc., the nonprofit hired by the city to manage the market. Even Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D) admitted that the organization’s track record is questionable — he cited the fact that none of the vendors had leases for the building — and hinted that the management could change hands when the bid comes up in December.

However, he also said the organization proved helpful in the aftermath of the fire. And, he said, the tragedy has brought people together for the preservation of a historic structure.

“Now is not the time to build a mezzanine to sell T-shirts to tourists,” he said.

Tangherlini told the crowd that the design process could be done in four to six months, and in an interview he said he was confident that the worst was over.

“I think we’ve answered the hard questions,” he said, adding that the renovation designs were about 90 percent done before the fire. “With the merchants out of the market, we could move more quickly … We don’t have to thread the needle.”