It was Sunday night, and Jose Canales was working late at his deli in the South Hall of Eastern Market. His work done, he tried to leave — and found himself trapped.
It took him more than an hour and a half to escape the locked-up market, after multiple calls to the management’s emergency number went unanswered, he said. Two days went by before his call was returned. [IMGCAP(1)]
“I think that’s very poor management,” said Canales, who also owns Tortilla Café and manages more than 20 apartments around the city. “If I get an emergency call, trust me, I’ll be there.”
Canales’ sentiment is a common one among the market’s merchants.
In fact, Eastern Market Ventures has had a rough ride since it first took over the management of the historic market six years ago. Lawsuits stalled the original contract, disputes held up lease agreements, and vendors constantly complained of overflowing trash and a lack of bathrooms.
The fire that ravaged the South Hall on
April 30 has attracted the attention of the entire city, and with that, the critical eyes of the Washington, D.C., government. With EMV’s contract up in December, some say the company might be pushed out to make way for a new management system. Ward 6 City Councilman Tommy Wells (D) hinted just that at a community meeting a few weeks ago, and the Office of Property Management, which oversees EMV, has started an “analysis” on “the whole relationship of vendors to the market manager and all those various kinds of interactions that take place,” said Bill Rice, OPM’s customer service officer. Rice would not get more specific.
“Now that we have everyone’s attention, we’ll be able to look into what can be done,” Wells said in a recent interview.
Much has changed since the April 30 fire: D.C. officials have expanded and fast-tracked long-delayed plans for the South Hall’s renovation, launched a new advertising campaign and focused on the market’s organizational structure. The relationship between merchants and the management has been prickly for a while, delaying such goals as beginning renovations and establishing long-term leases for the South Hall merchants. (Currently, the merchants pay month-to-month.)
The three-way negotiations on the leases — between EMV, the merchants and OPM — stalled for years because of the difficulty of getting so many entities to agree, said Bryan Cook, who has taken over the day-to-day management of the market from his father, EMV manager Bruce Cook.
“There were a lot of things that to some degree are beyond our control. We’ve done our best to work with requirements and restrictions,” Cook said. “We’re working with everyone. Sometimes it’s hard being the middle man, but we really care about the market.”
EMV is in an odd position: It does not have a management contract with the city but instead holds a five-year lease on the market (which is set to expire on Dec. 31). In a review of EMV submitted to the city council on Jan. 2, 2004, Carol Mitten, then the OPM acting director, called it a “unique relationship” that “requires a higher level of interaction between the parties than a typical landlord/tenant relationship.”
That interaction seems to have soured quickly. Canales no longer attends any discussions with EMV because he believes all the decisions are made behind closed doors. And meetings about the market often turn to the management’s inadequacies. At one public forum on building a temporary structure for the South Hall merchants, Market Poultry’s Mel Inman stood up and called for EMV’s demise to a room full of cheers.
At the moment, OPM officials won’t say exactly what options they are considering, other than to admit they are analyzing the management system. Cook said he is currently in talks with the city to extend the lease and expressed confidence his company is fully qualified to continue running the market. But a look at OPM’s 2004 report and the EMV business plan reveal several milestones yet to be reached, such as installing air conditioning, completing electrical upgrades and building more bathrooms. Other goals included enhancing customer parking, creating more storage space for the South Hall merchants and establishing market rules and regulations. EMV receives about $10,000 a month for its services.
Cook pointed to the work the management has done since the fire, namely working with several government and private agencies to build the temporary market and rebuild the South Hall.
“Overall we have a pretty stable situation right now,” he said. “We’re poised for future.”
Indeed, Wells has said that EMV has worked fast and efficiently since the fire. However, market merchants complained that they never saw EMV managers Stuart Smith and Bruce Cook on the day of the fire (Bryan Cook said both were out of town and other market representatives came immediately). Having identifiable managers on site is crucial, but EMV managers are rarely there during the week, Canales said.
“You know, it’s details, details — a long list of things they should have done,” he said, later adding: “It’s too bad within the market that we’re not well organized. I think it would have been better to have a co-op type of management, and we would easily take care of management problems.”
As the city considers new possibilities for the market, the challenge will be to mend relations and create a management system without ruining the independence that makes the market so unique, Wells said.
“Remember, it’s Eastern Market. Eastern Market has always been its own anarchy, which allowed it to grow,” Wells said. “If we had overregulated, much of Eastern Market would have never occurred.”