Earlier this week, Councilmember Tommy Wells introduced legislation that would fundamentally alter the way Eastern Market operates. Pretty much everyone agrees that the change is necessary: Currently, the market is managed by the city, which can’t respond quickly enough to funding and administrative needs that change day to day. Wells’ bill would simply create a new governing board of community members and merchants, independent of the District, with the power to make key decisions.
Nonetheless, the news sparked a micro-uproar. Merchants fretted to the Post that Wells’ bill was meant to make the market into a more profitable enterprise, i.e., kick all the old-timers out and bring in Dean & DeLuca. The anxiety spilled over into a meeting Wednesday evening at the Market’s north hall, where merchants and vendors worried aloud that the protections they had thought might be spelled out in the legislation were nowhere to be found.
“It’s an elite vision of the market that’s driving the train,” said Mary Belcher, a watercolorist who’s sold at the market since 1995.
Much of the worry centered around the right of long-time businessfolk to return, if this new governing board felt like seeking higher rents from more competitive shops. The last time the Council passed major reforms to market governance, back in 1999, the existing businesses had been given the right of first refusal for their spots, and the role of a tenants council was specifically delineated. There are lots of ways in which that legislation wasn’t followed to the letter—-resulting in a very critical audit in 2002—-but it did help achieve buy-in for the reforms by allowing vendors the security of knowing they wouldn’t be forced to leave. It’s worked: All but one of the 13 indoor merchants have been there since before 1997, although only about 30 percent of the outdoor merchants are the same.
Wells didn’t include specific protections in his bill, in part because he contended that the new board should have the freedom to set its own rules, including getting rid of someone if the quality of their business declined. “If you start changing what you offer, does your grandfathering clause prevent the authority from being able to make a change?” Wells asked, delicately. “If someone stops coming to their space, what rights does management have? If someone doesn’t play by the rules, what kind of leverage can it use?”
And indeed, there are are some who believe the market will have to adapt to remain viable at a time when Hill people have a whole lot more grocery stores to choose from. “I really worry about the competitiveness of this market going forward,” warned Andrew Lightman, managing editor of the Hillrag newspaper. “If we don’t change with the times, this place will die as a food market.”
At the moment, though, that doesn’t seem like a pressing concern. According to Bill Glasgow, owner of Union Meats and representative for the South Hall vendors, even though business has been down since the devastating 2007 fire, market management has been in the black, as vendors are gradually being given leases at a uniform rate of about $30 per square foot.
Still, he figures Wells will likely agree to include protections for merchants who had been grandfathered into the 1997 legislation. “I think he has do, don’t you?” Glasgow said, after vendor upon vendor got up in the meeting to ask for some kind of assurance that they’d be able to stay. “You just created a lot of fear, and it’s not necessary,” he said. “It’s peoples’ livelihoods. It cuts deep.”
Donna Scheeder, chair of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, also got the impression that longtime vendors would be taken care of. “I think that issue is going to go away,” she said.
Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff, couldn’t say how exactly the bill would change—-but existing merchants shouldn’t be too worried. “[Wells] does not see those long term vendors going anywhere,” Allen said. “The 1997 piece is absolutely one that Tommy’s going to look at.”