As work on The Wharf continues, tenants of the adjacent Maine Avenue Fish Market are claiming they’re being forced out.

Last Thursday, a complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for D.C. regarding the $2 billion redevelopment plan for the Southwest Waterfront. Two tenants of the Maine Avenue Fish Market are claiming that the District government and developers of The Wharf—a mixed-use project that will run along the Washington Channel for roughly one mile—“entered into a conspiracy to run the Plaintiffs’ [sic] out of the fish market by destroying Plaintiffs’ businesses.”

Those plaintiffs are Captain White Seafood City and Salt Water Seafood, operators of open-air fish markets and a seafood deli, respectively. They’re asking for “just compensation” for the purported damages to their business as well as a declaratory judgment from the court that the developers respect the terms of their leases.

Founded in 1805, the Maine Avenue Fish Market is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the U.S.

The 34-page complaint alleges that the District and Hoffman-Madison Waterfront—a joint venture between developers PN Hoffman and Madison-Marquette—have committed “egregious acts including harassment, governmental overreach, continuous material breaches of Plaintiffs’ leases, and unjust attempts to oust Plaintiffs from their leased property.”

“The actions of the District and HMW have deterred Plaintiffs’ customers from frequenting the Municipal Fish Market, threatened the financial viability of Plaintiffs’ businesses, and harmed Plaintiffs’ reputation in the community,” the lawsuit states. “The District’s accommodations to HMW and abandonment of its commitments to Plaintiffs is particularly ironic here because of its storied history of failed urban development in this very area, which displaced local businesses.”

D.C. broke ground on the The Wharf in March 2014, eight years after a developer was selected. Plans for the massive project include apartments, offices, hotels, bars, and music venues, including a concert hall by the owner of the 9:30 Club. Most recently, the American Psychiatric Association announced it would relocate there from Rosslyn, to a 220,000-square-foot office scheduled to be completed in early 2017.

As for the fish market, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront has submitted a plan to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts that proposes to restore a historic oyster shed, relocate the fish-cleaning building, and add various retail space, such as a market hall and a distillery building. “By and large, we love the way it is, and we’re embracing it and we plan to add more on the land side,” PN Hoffman CEO Monty Hoffman told Washington Business Journal this month. HMW has a 99-year lease on the fish market, which is not technically part of The Wharf redevelopment; the fish market, which was previously owned by the District, has been “annexed,” Hoffman told WBJ.

The conflict seems to have escalated over the past two years, during which the developers, the suit says, closed the site’s customer parking lot, constructed permanent structures on a “Common Area” designated for the plaintiffs’ use, and attempted to have vehicles ticketed and towed from the common area. The lawsuit also claims that HMW wants to force the businesses to vacate the premises by July 31 “for pretextual reasons,” including “missing copies” of the signed leases.

(Of the closed parking lot, HMW says on The Wharf’s website that 20 to 30 parking spots at the nearby Channel Inn are available to “help open up public spaces that are being occupied by Captain White’s and Jessie Taylor’s delivery vehicles.”)

In 2011, the D.C. Council passed a law to close Water Street SW, a thoroughfare along the Washington Channel and the primary access point to the leased property. The following year, a federal law exclusively designating the property and surrounding area as a fish market was amended “to remove its exclusive character… and make it simply a market.” It also was changed to allow the District Redevelopment Land Agency to lease or sell the land to a redevelopment company. The complaint states that these steps were taken to benefit the developers without concern for the seafood businesses.

Wendell L. Taylor and Jonathan Lasken of Hunton & Williams—an international law firm that was founded in Richmond, Virginia in 1901—are representing the local seafood businesses. Reached by phone, Sunny White, owner of Captain White Seafood City, declined to comment. Salt Water Seafood, PN Hoffman, and Madison-Marquette could not be reached for comment. Rob Marus, communications director for D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General, said his office does not comment on pending litigation, and added that the District will respond “in due course.”

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Photo by Tim Carman