For years, two blocks around Eastern Market have been closed to cars, and on weekends operates as an outdoor extension of the famous market hall. Now, one of the blocks might reopen to traffic, sparking a debate over the best way to use this valuable public space.
One pedestrian space, two distinct permits
To better understand the street situation, it helps to understand that "Eastern Market" is an umbrella term for a several distinct groups of vendors.
The Eastern Market building itself, located on the west side of 7th Street SE between C Street and North Carolina Avenue, has been in operation since 1873 and is DC's oldest operating public market. About a dozen interior vendors offer fresh and prepared foods six days a week. Affiliated "Farmer's Line" vendors fill the sidewalk space around the market on Tuesdays and weekends, with a half-dozen prepared food vendors also selling on the adjacent Rumsey Aquatic Center plaza on weekends.
The pedestrian-only blocks of 7th Street house the area's two distinct weekend flea markets. The first is affiliated with Eastern Market and features mostly arts and crafts vendors that set up shop on both the market building's northern sidewalk plaza and in the closed-to-cars 200 block of 7th Street SE, between North Carolina and C Street SE. This block has been in use as a weekend flea market for a decade, ever since the devastating 2007 fire at the Eastern Market building, and it shows no signs of changing: the block has a mayoral order permitting the street closure that will remain in force "until rescinded."
But closing the 300 block of 7th Street to cars was only intended as temporary, lasting only for the duration of construction at the neighboring Hine School redevelopment. The temporary closure was needed to accommodate the 30-plus dislocated vendors from the Flea Market at Eastern Market, an independent enterprise from the main Eastern Market complex which for more than two decades set up shop in the surface parking lot at the Hine School.
But now construction at the Hine site is wrapping up, and the future of this block is in question as the flea market will transition over to new plaza space created in the new development along C Street, which includes part of the old Hine parking lot space.
Fresh food merchants want traffic back
Most community members who shared their views at a special purpose ANC 6B meeting last week, including Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, supported keeping both blocks of 7th Street closed to vehicles. These residents, and some vendors, view the street closure as an important amenity that draws crowds who enjoy strolling, car-free, throughout the market area.
But some of Eastern Market's inside vendors and the block's brick-and-mortar retailers want to see vehicles - and the potential customers who drive them - return to both blocks. Eastern Market vendors, represented by Tom Glasgow of Market Lunch, expressed their concerns in terms of overall market accessibility, and a real worry that the inside fresh food vendors are losing prominence at the market relative to everything else.
"accessibility" of EM is concern, and stand-in for "cars" but also more. Incls. ADA, loading zones, "prominence" of inside/outside vendor— Bryan Rodda (@bryan_in_dc) August 30, 2017
Of course, parking played a central role here: one commentator stated that 54 spaces are lost on weekends owing to the street closures.
Commenter representing interior food vendors: sense that parking is critical to merchants— Bryan Rodda (@bryan_in_dc) August 30, 2017
"Can't convince folks to park 3-4 blocks away, then 3-4 blocks back with their grocery bags"— Bryan Rodda (@bryan_in_dc) August 30, 2017
And while that last comment drew a few eye-rolls, several commentators raised concerns about the ability to load/unload near the market, and not all customers are able to carry heavy grocery bags multiple blocks on a shopping trip.
For at least one brick-and-mortar retailer, different issues dominated:
Also that vendors have different licensing, taxes than brick and mortar. Seems to want more "even" playing field.— Bryan Rodda (@bryan_in_dc) August 30, 2017
But while these merchants are an important constituency, it's less clear that their proposed solution of reopening the streets to cars would bring about their desired outcomes. Fifty parking spaces might seem like a major loss until you consider that 50 spaces worth of people stream out of the Eastern Market Metro station several times an hour. The merchants may feel that a large proportion of their customers need to be able to park right out front, but perhaps those customers that find parking difficult to come by are much more likely to complain to the merchants than the huge number of customers who walked, took transit, or biked to the market without issue.
However, it is apparent that at least some Eastern Market's merchants are feeling the pinch, and even if 7th Street's status is unlikely the primary cause, discussion of the street's fate is prompting the community toward a broader set of issues.
(Which suggests @charlesallen hit right theme. Broader reconsideration of how EM competes in future food landscape being raised)— Bryan Rodda (@bryan_in_dc) August 30, 2017
A holistic approach extending beyond the confines of the 300 block of 7th Street is needed. But there's a more immediate question of what to do with the 300 block, if it remains closed to cars: what should DC's Department of General Services, who manages the Eastern Market area, plan for the block? A market analysis report is underway, but undoubtedly more community input will be required.
Keep the street open for people
Ultimately, the future of these two blocks of 7th Street reflects the values we place on our public streets. And at Eastern Market, most everyone, from regular community members through Council Member Allen, expressed that prioritizing vehicle traffic and storage isn't worth giving up the unique neighborhood amenity and communal space created by the stress-free, car-free environment. Far from detracting from the Eastern Market experience, the pedestrianized streets help define its very essence and uniqueness that attracts locals, cross-town visitors, and tourists to Eastern Market in the first place.
As ANC member Daniel Ridge noted near the end of the meeting, Eastern Market's 130-plus year history is largely a story about a public market succeeding without having to cater to cars. It should continue to be so for the decades to come.