For the past four years, parking around Eastern Market on Saturdays has been free—if you can find it. Ever since the District deactivated the majority of parking meters on Saturdays, in July 1998, metered spaces along the streets surrounding the historic Capitol Hill market have filled up fast on the weekends.

Now, Eastern Market manager Stuart Smith wants to make shoppers start paying again. He’s urging the city to reactivate the meters this spring on 7th Street SE along the front of the market and on nearby sections of C Street and North Carolina Avenue.

The revival of meters, Smith says, would “make the market more customer-friendly.” Without metered parking, he says, vehicles that wheel into open spaces early on Saturday often stay put for hours—sometimes all day—leaving latecomers no nearby place to park. “People come down and spend the entire day for free,” Smith says. “The cars don’t rotate.”

Opinion among market vendors about reactivation is split. That may be because Smith’s plan would create divisions among the outdoor merchants: Food and produce sellers would retain free-parking rights, while arts-and-crafts vendors would be required to feed the meters and obey the two-hour limit.

The reason, Smith says, is that food sellers move a larger volume of goods than craft dealers do. They would therefore be allowed to keep their trucks along 7th Street throughout the day. “It would be hard for them to carry all that stuff for eight blocks,” Smith says.

Eligible merchants under Smith’s plan would receive one complimentary city-issued meter bag, which would save them from getting parking tickets. Additional bags would come at a fee.

David Fowler of Sunnyside Farm in Mechanicsville, Va.—whose truck sits idle at the market from dawn to dusk every Saturday—says the food sellers’ exemption makes sense. “If everybody’s moving their trucks every two hours,” he says, “no one’s gonna be movin’ on this road at all.”

But the arts-and-crafts crowd says the proposed parking policy is unfair.

“It’s been free. It should stay free. Otherwise, everybody should have to pay,” says Bami beauty-products dealer Dionne Coleman. “A vendor is a vendor is a vendor.”

Aimee Occhetti of the D.C. Office of Property Management, which oversees the market site, says the city will await input from nearby Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B before reactivating the meters. Commissioner David Shelton says a series of public hearings need to take place first.

In the meantime, for some market patrons, the endangered free-parking privilege now goes unused. On Jan. 4, a tan Chevy Tahoe with Maryland tags pulled into a recently vacated space along the 7th Street market front.

After locking the doors with the beep of his key-chain control, the driver mistakenly fed the meter a quarter, just as a passer-by informed him that parking is free.

The customer, who declined to give his name, said reactivating the meters would add insult to his 25-cent injury: “I say, knock ’em down.” CP