'We're not all going to fit here'

The Flea Market at Eastern Market may be unrecognizable in a year

By Laura E. Finch

Photo credit: BAR Photography

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November, Pablo Gato stood near the bustling entrance of Washington, D.C.'s famous Flea Market at Eastern Market. He held up a pair of old-fashioned landscape slides made for a stereoscope, a small slide viewer popular in the mid-19th century.

“So far it's between my mortgage and the slides, and the slides are winning,” he said with a laugh.

Gato may not have the option to invest in his hobby for much longer. One year from now, the former schoolyard he's standing in will be a construction site.

The Flea Market is not owned or operated by any of the entities which own and operate the Eastern Market building or other vendors located on 7th street. Mike Berman, a former vendor himself, has made a business out of managing it on Sundays.

View The Flea Market at Hine Middle School in a larger map

A developer plans to put housing and retail units on the current site of the Flea Market, which was formerly the schoolyard of Hine Middle School. The lot has already been re-zoned.

The deal means the flea market's 105 tents will have to move, according to Berman. Nearby streets could accommodate many of them, but not all-- and timing and management issues have yet to be worked out between market management and the city.

In June, 1,000 supporters had signed an online petition to save the Flea Market.

During negotiations, the developer offered a proposal to move many vendors to a nearby block of C St., between 7th and 8th streets, SE.

The Story of Hine, the Flea Market's Home- For Now

Hine Middle School is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE between 7th and 8th streets.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Pate said that the Flea Market was conceived by Hine's principal as a fundraiser for the school marching band. In 1997, the total yearly fee for Sunday use of the schoolyard was just under $17,000, according to a written agreement between the D.C. Public Schools and the Flea Market.

In 2008, Hine was among those shuttered by former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, amid some controversy.

The controversy continued during the bidding process as neighbors asked questions like,"Is 90 feet too tall for Pennsylvania Avenue?" and "Will the plan include enough open space?"

Ultimately, according to the developer's plan, the site will become "a mixed-use development, re-connecting Eastern Market and the Metro Station, that is as richly diverse, architecturally distinguished and historically rooted as the surrounding Hill community."

The Advisory Neighborhood Committee 6B Hine School PUD Subcommittee also chronicled the process on a WordPress blog.

The block has yet to be built-- currently, it's just an alley-- but has been promised by the developer to the Flea Market “in perpetuity,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Pate.

The Flea Market currently enjoys space for 105 white vendor tents at 100 square feet each in the former schoolyard, said Sunday market manager Michael Berman. For example, some vendors use more than one tent because of the large size of their wares-- like antique furniture or large artwork.

Even when the new block is complete, Berman believes only one third of the vendors will fit. “There's very little room on C St. for a truck to come in with furniture. It remains to be seen not only how many but what type [of products] we get in,” Berman said.

Pate says on the developer's diagram, up to 68 tents will be able to fit in the same space.

Whatever the final layout is on C street, it won't be able to accommodate all of the vendors- which may mean a smaller selection for shoppers, who are not excited about the market becoming homogenized.

Larry Janezich, a local resident, blogged about the process on the Eastern Market Metro Community Association blog and Capitol Hill Corner.

"Part of the charm [of the market] is you never know what you're going to get," he said.

During construction, and before the new block of C. St. is complete, there's one last option for relocating the Flea Market.

Sunday Market Manager: Michael Berman

Sunday Flea Market vendors pay rent to Michael Berman, a painter who sold his own work at the Flea Market before starting a business to manage the entire operation. Diverse Markets Management (DMM), the entity which emerged, employs several staff and has an office seven blocks away.

A report by a market research group hired by Berman, The Eisen Group LLC, is posted on the Eastern Market website. It confirms that the Flea Market has "incubated" more than sixty businesses which grew into brick-and-mortar storefronts, including some that are now multi-store, regional operations. One artist was even commissioned to paint a Presidential Portrait.

When construction begins on the Hine site, the only available space for the Flea Market will be on city streets. At that time the city could theoretically take over management of the market and directly collect rent from each vendor.

Tommy Wells is the D.C. Councilmember for Ward 6, where the Market is located. He said this was one of several possible options for governance structure going forward.

Another could be that vendors work through Berman and Berman leases through Eastern Market management. Yet another would be that individual vendors would lease individually from Market management.

Wouldn't that cut Berman and DMM out of the process entirely?

“Yeah. That would be stealing our business and that would be a lawsuit,” Berman said.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Pate called this scenario highly unlikely: “I don't think the city wants to run that market... I think philosophically the city government doesn't want to be in the business of running a for-profit business.”

The city of Washington could choose to close the 300 block of 7th St., SE on weekends to accommodate more vendors and their tents.

Eastern Market Metro Community Association President Barbara Riehle predicts a fight to come over the management structure of the Flea Market if located on this block.

“That will be a little bloodbath,” she said.

Riehle referred to the fact that if the Market is relocated to a city street, the city could decide to take over the job currently being performed by Berman and his company, DMM.

Marian Connolly represented the Hine North Neighbors, a group of households located mostly within 200 feet of the Hine site, before the Zoning Commission during talks with the developer.

“I'm not a Republican, but this is a Republican kind of thing,” Connolly said. “You don't just take businesses- private businesses- for government purposes. When those businesses are paying sales tax, they get business licenses... It just doesn't seem right. It stinks.”

On the other hand, Pate pointed out that although the Flea Market clearly benefits from the branding of the Eastern Market main building, it currently "doesn't pay a red cent" to that entity.

He said that after the expensive fire a few years ago, part of the Flea Market's rent money should go toward upkeep of the main building.

Although construction is scheduled to begin next summer, the city has still not issued an order to close the 300 block of 7th street.

“I don't know if there's political pressure being exerted or it's just the city moves slowly and making sure they're doing everything the correct way,” said Berman. “If nothing happens by January it becomes very critical.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells said that the street could also be closed by petition.

Whatever its fate and future location, 2012 might be the last Christmas season for shoppers to take advantage of the current variety of Flea Market vendors.

And if antique stereoscope slides are no longer available?

Eastern Market will go on, but as Gato said, “That will be a great loss for the city."