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In their epic 20-year struggle over Eastern Market, the city’s last fresh food market, Capitol Hill community groups have raised every conceivable fear over how proposed renovations would ruin their beloved century-old stronghold of District tradition. They have said the plans would drive out the farmers who sell fresh produce there on weekends, destroy the market’s traditional ambience, and turn it into a yuppified urban mall teeming with frozen-yogurt stands and espresso shops. But in a meeting last month, Mayor Marion Barry issued an edict that promised to bring more grief and horror to activists than a wrecking ball slamming into the city-owned market’s red brick exterior: “No more meetings,” he told a crowd of neighborhood types.

The edict was tantamount to a death sentence for the market’s advocacy groups and free-lancing boosters, who together have buzzed around the market battle like a swarm of fruit flies on rotted produce. For the Eastern Market warriors, “no more meetings” means an end to the peculiar form of community warfare they’ve perfected over two decades—warfare that’s equal parts NIMBYfication and innuendo. It begins with pointing the finger at illusory enemies, and always, always ends with charging that the other guy is on the take.

The legendary spat over Eastern Market, a historic landmark located at 7th and C Streets SE, began in the late 1970s, after the District completed a series of uncontroversial renovations to the 123-year-old building’s exterior. But the renovations left the market’s crumbling interior untouched, and city officials say it has decayed into a heap of building and fire code violations. Community brawling and the concomitant squabbling began in 1987 with the unveiling of the city’s first proposed design and have continued unabated since. At the recent meeting, Barry attempted to put a period on the story by pledging swift action on a $4.9-million renovation plan that last year won conceptual approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board. He also promised to hire a professional manager to oversee the market’s various businesses. But the mayor’s bold stroke hasn’t scared off the market’s defenders, for whom bellyaching is as instinctive as a Saturday-morning run for gourmet coffee.

After all, Capitol Hill is the most political neighborhood in the most political of all cities. Instead of rehabbing classic cars, building model airplanes, or forming bridge clubs, the neighborhood’s moss-backed bureaucrats, political hacks, and high-priced lawyers emerge night after night from their stately town houses bearing gavels, freshly printed talking points, and massive boxes of documents on the latest neighborhood dispute. While most neighborhoods are busy planning block parties, Capitol Hill residents spend time plotting the next neighborhood putsch.

“The fight has always been pretty dirty,” says Richard Glasgow, who manages the fresh food stands in the market’s south hall.

District-based architect Kent Cooper, of Cooper-Lecky Architects PC, has been on the receiving end of much of the mudslinging. Cooper’s involvement in the project dates back to 1987, when he completed his first set of renovation drawings. Capitol Hill preservationists rejected the drawings as an attempt to turn their traditional fresh food mart into a trendy urban artifact. Nine years and “20 to 30” revised plans later, Cooper still hasn’t shaken the stigma.

“It’s like we’re raping the building or something,” says Cooper. “I’ve been called close to a devil. It’s terrible.”

Mary Farrell, director of the Fund for Eastern Market, says Cooper is part of a cabal of “powerful real estate interests” that have coalesced to defeat neighborhood preservationists. Farrell declines to name the cabal’s principals for the record and adds that Cooper is a “smooth operator” who is “basically incapable of handling a preservation project.”

Freedom of Information Act requests filed by a resident who asked for anonymity turned up over $750,000 in city outlays for architectural work on the project, a figure that makes preservationists bristle with disgust. “Between the city and the architect, three-quarters of a million dollars is going to bite the dust on this overscaled renovation,” says Dick Williams, a Capitol Hill resident and board member of the Eastern Market Preservation and Development Corp. (EMPDC). Williams notes that the $176.00 per square foot allocated for the market renovations exceed what then-mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon dished out in 1991 for her spiffy quarters at 1 Judiciary Square.

But Williams’ gripes with Cooper go way beyond dollar figures and gussied-up renovation drawings. “I’ve managed to develop a profound dislike of [Cooper],” volunteers Williams. “He’s recalcitrant and does not intend to be helpful.”

Personalities aside, although they rarely are on Capitol Hill, Cooper has tried repeatedly to convince the preservation groups that their fears are unfounded: “There has never been a plan to Dean & Deluca-ize this market at all,” he insists, referring to the current tenant of the defunct Georgetown fresh food market on M Street.

Market preservationists have also aimed their well-oiled guns at an easy target in community disputes: the District government. Jane Snow McCune, of Concerned Citizens for Eastern Market, says that the city has used the market’s so-called building and fire code violations as a pretext to foist its “extravagant plan” on the market. “This is all fabricated,” says McCune, noting that the city has never cited the building for violations. “This plan will destroy the ambience of the market.”

James Fagelson, who is overseeing the project for the city’s Office of Economic Development, counters that city inspectors have deliberately avoided issuing citations for the market. “The minute we cite them, we would have to improve them, and we can’t improve them until we get everything done,” he says. “It’s a chicken and egg.”

But the groups continue to skirmish over everything from the fine print to the grand scheme of the renovation plans. EMPDC’s Williams, for one, says that the city’s plans to build new entrances and ramps for handicapped access are a waste of money. McCune says the new construction plans provide too many bathrooms. Farrell pans a proposal to cut through the wall that divides the market’s north and south halls. Once the project gets under way, construction crews won’t be able to move a single brick without pissing off hundreds of hyperactive locals.

While market boosters will never run out of complaints over the restoration project, they’re running out of serious-sounding names for their advocacy groups, which have sprung up and wilted like wildflowers in the battle over the market. Pity the Capitol Hill historian who sets out to document the ideological differences between the Concerned Citizens for Eastern Market and the Citizens’ Committee for Eastern Market—or better yet, the distinctions between the mandates of the Eastern Market Planning Commission and the Eastern Market Neighborhood Commission. Years from now, scholars will come across the minutes of the Friends of Eastern Market and spend the next millennium pondering who the enemy was.

If they lose the fight over the renovations, the market groups have at their disposal another dispute that should keep them up and running through the next century: management. At the May meeting, Barry pledged to install “professional management” at the market three months before the renovations are completed. The manager’s mission will be to lord over the market’s hodgepodge of businesses: a weekend farmer’s market, arts and crafts vendors, a flea market, the Market Five art gallery, and a hall of fresh food stands. Under the current arrangement, management duties are split between Glasgow, who oversees the fresh food hall, and John Harrod, who oversees the other businesses, except the city-managed farmer’s market.

Harrod operates his businesses from Eastern Market’s north hall, which the city has allowed him to occupy rent-free. Although Barry and other city officials have said Harrod’s deal is part of the District’s commitment to the arts, community observers charge that he is hiding income to justify a sweetheart deal.

Glasgow says the allegations are true “just based on the extensive vending that goes on on the property,” he says, adding that Harrod organizes a “minimal amount” of arts events at his Market Five location. Williams piles on: “The reason the government is broke is that it seems to be fine that this guy is absconding with income and being charged zero rent,” he says.

After 20 years at the market, Harrod is inured to the charges: “This is Capitol Hill, and it’s an annual ritual,” he says, adding that if the community dedicated itself to more worthy pursuits, “the homeless problem would be eliminated and AIDS would be cured.” Sitting at his desk in a narrow, L-shaped office in the corner of the gallery, Harrod pulls out a 1995 income report that shows $65 in profit on revenues of $78,135.

The latest buzz among market advocates is that Harrod is positioned to take over as Barry’s market czar. “The mayor has a history of gifting the city’s assets to cronies, and Harrod’s in the good graces of the mayor’s office,” says Peter Tierney, a Capitol Hill advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Harrod says that he would welcome a market czar but would not allow anyone else to manage his own businesses. When asked whether he would accept the job, Harrod demurs, “I’m not looking for that job.”

Farrell opposes the city’s management plans because a single market czar couldn’t possibly oversee the various businesses at the market. “If we found someone with expertise in agriculture and willing to recruit farmers, they wouldn’t know anything about all this other stuff,” says Farrell. To manage the market properly, Farrell says, the city would have to hire a management team so that all the businesses run smoothly.

But that is a nonstarter as well, she points out. Paying a management team would force the city to hike market rents. The humble vendors and farmers would pack their pickups for the last time, making room for the dreaded upscale food stands. Clearly, the conspiracy is right on schedule.

—Erik Wemple and Vanessa Bauzá