Two weeks after they issued a formal complaint against the developers of The Wharf—the $2 billion urban renewal project slated for the Southwest Waterfront—lawyers for some tenants of the Maine Avenue Fish Market have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt the developers’ alleged violations of lease terms and attempts to evict them.

The motion, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for D.C. on behalf of The Wharf, Inc., Captain White Seafood City, and Salt Water Seafood, Inc., says an injunction “is necessary in order to protect Plaintiffs’ rights during the pendency of this litigation.” It adds that developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront—a joint venture between developers PN Hoffman and Madison-Marquette—could “force Plaintiffs out-of-business before this Court can adjudicate this case.”

HMW sent eviction notices to the local businesses on June 25 of this year, claiming it could not find signed copies of lease agreements and that Salt Water had breached its own lease “with minor construction behind one of its barges.” The market tenants filed their formal complaint three days before the July 31 eviction deadline.

“Our clients’ businesses have been trampled upon by the redevelopment project,” said Wendell Taylor, a partner at Hunton & Williams who is representing the plaintiffs, in a prepared statement. “The Municipal Fish Market is a D.C. institution and we are fighting for the viability of the market itself. We believe that the District has abandoned its commitments to our clients, which is particularly ironic given its history of failed urban development in this very area, which displaced local businesses that had historic ties to the community exactly like our clients do.”

Monty Hoffman, PN Hoffman’s CEO, said in a statement obtained by the Washington Post that “from the start of construction of the project, we have been in regular contact with stakeholders, including the operators of the Fish Market, and have worked with all of our neighbors to minimize any temporary disruptions to the extent possible.”

“We are sensitive to ongoing business at the Fish Market, as well as its historical significance, and we have taken great lengths to incorporate both the history and existing operators into our future plans,” Hoffman added.

(Michael McNamara and Andrew Schulwolf, attorneys for the developers, could not be reached for comment this afternoon. Both their names are listed on the developers’ June eviction notice.)

As part of the injunction, the tenants’ lawyers have included a petition designed to “preserve the Southwest Waterfront Municipal Fish Wharf.” To date, it has received more than 2,200 pledges.

The previous complaint alleged that HMW has committed “egregious acts including harassment, governmental overreach, continuous material breaches of Plaintiffs’ leases, and unjust attempts to oust Plaintiffs from their leased property”—harming the fish market’s business and reputation.

Running 600-plus pages, the motion fleshes out those charges, stating that the developers built structures to “impede customers’ access to Plaintiffs’ businesses,” occupied “large portions” of the market’s parking lot for themselves, and had police “ticket and tow [the] Plaintiffs’ vehicles” from the lot.

In a footnote, the motion also states that on Aug. 5, both parties met to discuss the issue, and that HMW “asked for time to review the text and determine whether to consent [to it].” The next day, the motion claims, the developers “hastily filed state court eviction cases against [the] Plaintiffs and a motion to dismiss in [the U.S. District] Court.” A preliminary eviction hearing in the D.C. Superior Court is scheduled for Aug. 31. A second footnote clarifies that while the District itself is part of the litigation (among the defendants), the plaintiffs do not seek an injunction against it.

The D.C. government made HMW a “Successor-in-Interest by Assignment,” or landlord, of the fish market, which was previously owned by the District. The market has now been “annexed” by HMW and made part of The Wharf project. The developer has proposed renovations to the site, including changes to a historic oyster shed and a fish-cleaning building; it also plans to add retail space like a distillery building and market hall, Hoffman told the Washington Business Journal in July.

“The Fish Market is a D.C. institution,” said Sunny White, owner of Captain White’s Seafood City. “We’ve been here for more than 40 years and built our businesses here from nothing. Now, the redevelopment is trying to take it all away and throw us out onto the street. It isn’t right.”

The developers have an opportunity to respond to the motion before U.S. District Court for D.C. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly decides whether to hear arguments or receive additional briefings.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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