7th Street SE outside Eastern Market. Image by Photo Phiend licensed under Creative Commons.

For two years, a weekend flea market outside Eastern Market has temporarily been able to set up stalls on 7th Street SE, which is closed for a construction project. But now that the work is finished, there's a debate over whether the street should stay closed on weekends, or be open to cars all the time.

For years, a food and arts and crafts market has developed along one block of 7th Street SE in front of Eastern Market. Some merchants inside the market and on 7th Street complained about the street being closed to accommodate those vendors, arguing that they needed convenient weekend parking, and some of them can legitimately show a drop off in business to prove their point.

In 2015, the redevelopment of the former Hine Junior High School into apartments, offices, and shops temporarily displaced another group of vendors operating the weekend flea markets. Those weekend flea markets had been operating on the school's parking lot and were temporarily relocated to a block away, closing an additional block of 7th Street on the weekends.

That means the two blocks of 7th Street SE between Pennsylvania Avenue and North Carolina Avenue are part of a large open market for pedestrians every weekend. Once the Hine project is finished, that open space will include part of C Street just east of 7th, which will get a wide plaza to accommodate more people.

So now that the Hine School development and adjacent plaza are almost done, the question of what happens to that block is once again being raised. The development will include 320 new underground parking spots, but the District has yet to make a formal decision about it. And businesses are again pushing for reopening possibly both streets in some way.

The latest proposal

Since 2014, some businesses inside the market, led by Bill Glasgow of Union Meats, have proposed reopening at least part of the street, complaining about the need for parking. More recently, Glasgow, a tenant representative to the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC), and a mix of other vendors from inside and outside the market have attempted to sharpen the debate beyond just “open” or “closed.”

Their latest proposal is to allow traffic to drive on the southbound side of the street from North Carolina Avenue towards Pennsylvania Ave, and have market stalls and pedestrians on the other side. It’s not clear where additional parking would go. Sensing strong support for keeping the open vibrant market configuration on weekends, they’ve proposed to split the baby and allow cars, vendors, and pedestrians to share the road, which may not address everyone’s needs.

Businesses are split on the idea. At least some of the outside vendors and the managers of the weekend flea markets oppose reopening 7th Street. Ward 6 councilmember Charles Allen opposes it as well. He told Capitol Hill Corner, a local blog that has been covering the issue and its history, “I don’t support re-opening 7th Street to car traffic on weekends. The pedestrian plaza, community space, and temporary real estate for local small businesses created on weekends is a valuable part of the Eastern Market and Capitol Hill experience.”

Foot traffic helps these businesses more than parking

Some of the businesses that line 7th Street have complained that there is unfair competition from street vendors who compete without the burden of property taxes and other regulations. But the principal and enduring argument being raised for reopening the street has been parking, and its perceived impact on business.

Brick and mortar businesses have long claimed that they need parking to get more customers, and that the thousands of pedestrians who walk through each weekend are just tourists who browse and don’t buy anything. They insist that they are losing business from people who are not willing or able to walk or bike to this area and have to schlep back several bags of groceries, clothing, or toys.

Yet those merchants ignore that there are a lot of those walkers and the numbers seem to grow, and some of those walkers do buy stuff. The presence of this open space has made the area more vibrant to visitors and neighbors alike, which can encourage more visits and more spending..

More significantly, and this really should be the showstopper for anyone even thinking about reopening the street in the name of parking, the new Hine project is going to open with 320 new underground parking spots right there, much of it there to serve the market. It’s not only possible to create more public space for the market and provide more parking, it’s about to happen.

But rather than keeping the street open, protecting the increased foot traffic and draw of the outside markets, and waiting to see the impact of hundreds of new parking spots, they want to shut down those pedestrian spots now for what might be 20-30 new parking spots.

It seems counterintuitive that in a dense urban environment, we would still be entertaining debates where the 1950s view of the automobile takes priority over diminishing public space. It seems easier to grasp what has existed in recent memory than it is to imagine what the future of commerce, small businesses and transportation will be. In the instance of this debate about parking and open space, there is the additional element of a truly historic institution that is loved by all but agreed on by few.

The ANC and EMCAC will weigh in formally on the question by the end of the month. Local ANC commissioner Diane Hoskins says that she supports keeping 7th Street a pedestrian-only zone. But without some public pressure from the community, it is quite possible that we could do real damage to a vibrant public space.

The ANC is having a special meeting to discuss this matter on August 29th at 7:30pm at the Hill Center, 923 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. At that meeting the ANC, is likely to take up a resolution from Commissioner Diane Hoskins to keep 7th Street open.

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Ivan Frishberg lives in the Eastern Market neighborhood in Washington DC, served as an ANC commissioner for four years and is currently on the Board of Directors for DC Water. When not being locally civic he works in the world of advocacy campaigns on the issues of clean energy and climate and leads up the Sustainability Banking practice at Amalgamated Bank.