Kalina Newman
Kalina Newman

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Southwest D.C. might be abuzz with the grand opening of The Wharf, but next to the modern glass buildings and latest restaurants is an invaluable piece of the city’s food history. For more than 200 years, the Maine Avenue Fish Market has operated as America’s oldest open-air fish market. The small hub of brightly colored storefronts manned by salty characters contrasts sharply with the opulent seafood towers and sleek dining rooms served by top chefs.

It’s been two years since several fish market businesses filed acomplaintalleging that the developers of The Wharf and the D.C. government conspired to run their businesses out of town in order to make way for the new development. The plaintiffs, Salt Water Seafood and Captain White’s Seafood, are still at the fish market today. While the businesses were not evicted, some fish market proprietors say the changes haven’t all been positive. The developers, on the other hand, view them as beneficial to everyone, including the fish market businesses.

“We definitely have loyal customers, which is what has kept us here 75 years, but it’s not as easy or as convenient as it used to be,” says Stan Kiser, a longtime employee and sales manager of Jessie Taylor Seafood, one of the market’s key vendors. Jessie Taylor’s is but one of the fish market’s family run businesses and Kiser has worked there since he was 14. “However, I think it’s going to be awesome when it’s all done.”

The two billion dollar development project stretches across 24 acres and includes dozens of new dining options and several entertainment venues. The fish market is considered an essential part of The Wharf, however it is currently still surrounded by fencing and parking is limited. The fish market is listed on The Wharf’s splashy webpage, but nested under the heading of “Things to Do” instead of having its own tab.

The Wharf project was planned in partnership with the city, and mixed-use developers PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette collaborated on the redevelopment. According to PN Hoffman CEO Monty Hoffman, there has been open communication between the developers and fish market tenants since the project was conceived. “We like the history of the fish market,” Hoffman says. “The fish market is for everybody.”

Parking remains one of the chief complaints. One to two hours in The Wharf’s garage costs $17, which would be a significant increase for fish market patrons who are used to parking for free. But for those just visiting the fish market, the first hour of parking is $2 with a validated paid receipt from any vendor in the market.

“We’ve gone through great pains to accommodate and make sure [the fish market] can run successfully,” says Hoffman, referring to the $2 parking system.

ForPenny White, owner of Captain White’s Seafood, a parking voucher isn’t enough. Since the complaint case, which is ongoing, White has been frustrated with the development but is determined to stay positive.

“A lot of my customers are upset,” she says. “I have a lot of loyal customers come to me now saying that there is no place to park. It’s a landmark, we’re the landing point of Washington seafood. I don’t think they contemplated transportation.”

Longtime customer Anthony Chesly says he is frustrated by the development but he won’t allow it to stop him from coming to the fish market. “It’s disheartening to see all of the change, but this market, it’s iconic,” he says. “It is D.C.’s own little monument. A lot of people I grew up with work here, and they’re still here. I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember.”

White says that the fish market is doing The Wharf a favor by serving as one of the only affordable dining options. To date, fine dining restaurants like Del Mar and Requin dominate the dining landscape, along with a few pubs and bars. The Anthem, The Wharf’s largest concert venue, attracts hungry people of all ages and budgets.

“After shows at the Anthem, we have a whole new crowd coming to us looking for something to eat,” White says.

Hoffman hopes that the Anthem can serve as a catalyst and example of how these new businesses will benefit the fish market.

“The Anthem draws in 6,000 people a night. When you look at the whole transformation in a holistic way, we are making creative uses for everything,” Hoffman says. “Everything we’re doing is about enhancing the overall community and being a large amenity to the DMV region.”

D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents Ward 6 where The Wharf is located, also views the fish market as essential to The Wharf and vice versa.

“The fish market has always been an important part of the Southwest community,” Allen tells WCP in an email. “With The Wharf, I expect new retail and dining options, and increased foot traffic to the waterfront, [which] will bring more people to discover and support the market.”

Going forward, Hoffman-Madison will also expand The Wharf’s water taxi transportation system, which will allow access between Navy Yard, Old Town Alexandria, and National Harbor. “Connecting all of these waterfronts creates an active, maritime experience,” Hoffman says.

As far as the market tenants, White says that she hopes that the significance of the fish market is what will bring people back.

“It is a landmark,” says White. “One of my favorite moments is watching families come here. I have moms come here at Christmastime and say that it’s a tradition to buy fish for their whole family. It’s beautiful to see.”

Overall, Hoffman and his counterparts are aware of the tensions caused by the development but are confident in the benefits that The Wharf will ultimately bring to the fish market and the area as a whole.