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The Georgetown Flea Market fights to stay out of Safeway’s tow-away zone.

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have meandered through the tables set up every Sunday at the Georgetown Flea Market. Celebrities such as Kevin Kline are also rumored to have stopped in for a stroll. Countless members of Congress have brought their families there for a saunter through the merchandise on offer.

Yet despite the Washington star power that frequents the weekly market, held at the Hardy Middle School at 1819 35th St. NW, the bazaar isn’t all that impressive. There are folding tables, of course, with rugs and tapestries on offer. Vendors sit on the tailgates of their pickup trucks, eating pork lo mein from cartons.

“That’s $40,” one vendor says to a browser who’s examining a tureen. “It was $50 10 minutes ago.”

The potential customer smiles, puts it down, and then moves on, hardly fazed by the not-so-subtle sales pitch. Several tables later, however, with her sunglasses hanging low on her nose, she lets a slight smirk linger on the corners of her lips.

“Everybody knows everyone else. We help each other out when someone is sick, and we go to weddings and funerals.” says Marlene Stewart, a Georgetown Flea Market vendor of 13 years’ standing. She and her husband, David Stewart, gave up their small advertising firm to pursue a future in antiquing.

“When someone is in trouble, everybody rallies,” Stewart observes, “and I think newcomers to the market pick up on some of that closeness.”

And trouble has come for the vendors recently, in the form of a dispute with the Wisconsin Avenue and S Street NW branch of multi-billion-dollar grocery chain Safeway, just across the street from the market. At the heart of the battle is a tug of war over parking spaces. The weekly Sunday mart conflicts with what the supermarket says is its busiest day of the week, and Safeway officials accuse flea-market patrons of parking in its lot and then walking across the street to shop.

On a recent Sunday, Safeway had three security officers at the entrances of its lot, barring flea-market patrons from entering. The officers also roamed the lot with an eye to towing illegally parked cars.

“Dealing with this is costing us business and forcing us to hire extra security guards to deal with parking generated by [the flea market],” says Safeway spokesperson Craig Muckle. “They like to look at us as the big-corporation bad guy, but eventually these costs are going to trickle down to the price of groceries.”

The market’s owner and operator is D.C. real estate agent and attorney Michael Sussman, who has run the market at Hardy Middle School since 1988. Sussman reached a settlement agreement with the District government on Oct. 5 over the flea market’s violation of zoning laws to allow the weekly sale to continue.

Approximately two years ago, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) administration informed Sussman that he needed to obtain a new certificate of occupancy for lease and insurance reasons. It was then that the conflict between the market and zoning laws regarding a minimum number of off-street parking spaces began.

The D.C. Council voted to grant a temporary exemption for the market in 1999, and the new deal between the flea market and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) Building and Land Regulation Administration grandfathered the Georgetown Flea Market into zoning compliance. According to the agreement, the city ruled that Sussman could continue operating because the zoning changes that rendered the bazaar illegal were put into place years after the flea market was established.

Safeway appealed to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals shortly after the agreement, hiring Arter & Hadden zoning-law veteran Jerry Moore to fight it. Moore says that the supermarket giant—which operates 1,759 stores in the United States and Canada, and grossed $9.5 billion last year—is not trying to shut down its neighbor, but “to simply use the appeal as leverage to bring Sussman back to the negotiating table.”

The settlement that Sussman reached with the city was done behind closed doors in the midst of ongoing negotiations between Sussman and Safeway on the parking issue, says Moore.

“One minute, the store was negotiating with this guy; the next minute, he gets a settlement agreement and says, ‘See ya, I don’t need to deal with you anymore’? I don’t think so,” Moore says. “I think an agreement can be reached here, but we just need to get his attention.”

It’s still unclear exactly how the settlement was reached; there were no public hearings on the matter. Several prominent D.C. councilmembers have publicly expressed support for the flea market, however, and Moore claims that political pressure was exerted on the DCRA to resolve it quietly.

Moore argues that the District’s zoning laws make Safeway’s case airtight. He says that the Building and Land Regulation Administration lacks the authority to make such exceptions.

A successful appeal of the zoning agreement between the District and Sussman would effectively close the longtime community fixture. In one form or another, the flea market has been operating within blocks of its current location since 1973. And via the rental agreement with the school system for the use of the Hardy grounds, the market also generates $20,000 in annual income for DCPS.

Sussman says that the dispute with Safeway, which has been ongoing for more than a year, has spiraled to the point where he doesn’t want to negotiate with the supermarket chain. He adds that he has taken a previous offer to set up parking facilities in one zone of the flea market—at the rear end of the school—off the table. He says Safeway simply preferred to appeal his agreement with the city, and 20 additional vendors now occupy the space he’d offered for parking.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t be willing to offer it again, but the space is not available to offer now,” Sussman says. “They want to make it clear that they have the power to dictate to us before any agreement is reached.”

The tug of war has riled longtime vendors, and it has even prompted some people to burn their Safeway cards or to take their business to the Fresh Fields located four blocks north on Wisconsin Avenue.

The tension also triggered a Nov. 25 protest in front of the supermarket. The police were called in, but although the protestors were on Safeway property and did not have a permit, no one was arrested.

“I think the public sentiment is that they should lay off,” Sussman says. “I never entered a fight I thought I would lose, and we have the overwhelming support of the community. The public doesn’t like to see corporate muscling, David-vs.-Goliath behavior.”

Several browsers at the market say the Sunday event is the sole reason they come to the District on some weekends.

“This is part of my Sunday routine. I come here and then have brunch in Dupont,” says Cedric Rutker, a dean at Mary Washington College and a resident of Fredericksburg, Va. “I wouldn’t make the hourlong drive just to go to brunch, so this is why I’m here.”

Some vendors say that working the market is a hobby, but for as many as half of them, the market is a way of life—a part of a weekly routine that includes attending auctions and scoping out yard sales during the week.

Katharine Gram, who drives into the District every week from Pennsylvania, says the market has, above all, value as a community institution. She is among the vendors who have stopped patronizing the Wisconsin and S Safeway and have burned their Safeway cards.

Leonard Charles, a retired Navy officer who lives in Culpeper, Va., says he would feel “horrible” if the market closed. Charles, a 10-year-veteran vendor, says the market is his hobby and over the past decade has become a big part of his life.

“I don’t really see anybody park over there, but I guess it is logical that some people might,” Charles says. “It would seem a shame to end all of this over a few parking spots.” CP