Circa: October 1986

Phot courtesy of the Library of Congress

Introduction:

GM would like to introduce a new segment: Circa. For this segment, he will highlight an article about Georgetown from the Washington Post’s archive that captures a particular moment or issue from the past that has slipped into the fog of neighborhood history. The first article: “Georgetown Market’s Bitter Saga; Lease Drew Criticism, but Developer Says He Lost Millions” October 6, 1986. Hope you enjoy.

Background:

As early as 1795 there was a market at what we now call 3276 M St. Throughout the 19th century the market waxed and waned. At times it was a produce market at other times it was a slave auction house. Eventually it was torn down and replaced in 1865 with the building that stands today. In the 20th century it saw almost steady decline. From 1945 until the 1970’s it housed Southern Distributors, an autoparts wholesaler (seen above in 1966). By the mid 1970’s it sat empty.

Interestingly, almost since the beginning the local government has owned the property. It was first conveyed to the Georgetown Corporation in 1803 and then became the property of the District when Georgetown was absorbed in 1871. It remains a District-owned property to this day.

Circa October 1986:

Herb Miller’s Western Development took over a lease with the District in 1979 that called for it to operate the building as a market. Over the course of the convening six years, the market was a disaster. The Post wrote:

Western officials say they lost several million dollars leasing the historic red-brick building, at Potomac and M streets NW near the heart of Georgetown, from the city between 1979 and 1985. The main reasons for the losses were a lack of pedestrians there, lawsuits from area residents and uncooperative city officials, they said.

Lack of pedestrians? What a different time. Despite the struggles, Miller was still being accused of getting a sweetheart deal from the city:

Based on the amount it spent renovating the market, Western would be able to rent it to merchants and operate the place rent-free for 32 years, until 2016, the report said.

In retrospect, Ned Walsh, property administrator for the city’s Department of Administrative Services, said it is “amazing” how bad the lease was for the city. Walsh noted the “embarrassingly lengthy” amount of time before the city was to get any rent.

But critics said the biggest break for Western came in 1981, when the city granted Western’s request to extend the lease from 24 years to 102 years. Western said it needed the extension to justify its spending several million dollars to build a walkway around the building and make other improvements. But Troupe’s office said that while the lease extension was “beneficial to the lessee,” it was “not in the best interest of the District.”

Despite this generous deal, the market declined:

Disgruntled merchants sued Western, saying the company was not properly maintaining the premises — which Western denied. Residents sued, claiming that Western was violating a 1966 federal law stating that the building had to be used as a public market. Instead of being a market selling such items as produce and poultry, it was an upscale mall dealing in snacks, said the suit, which was dismissed in 1983.

The city disputed Western’s concerns:

Also, [Ward 2 Councilmember John] Wilson thought the magnanimity was unnecessary given the market’s location, one block from the bustling corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. “Georgetown can hardly be considered an economically depressed area,” Wilson said in a 1984 letter to city officials. “The current lessees have proven their inability to operate the Georgetown Market even with a highly favorable lease” and “loose reporting requirements.”

Miller closed the market in 1984. He transferred the lease to another company in 1985. By October 1986 the market was still empty.

The market remained empty until 1992 when Dean and Deluca moved in.

GM is happy to discover that even if Dean and Deluca were to go under, the District is mandated to operate a market on that property. Actually, he kind of wishes Dean and Deluca did go under so that we could get something closer to Eastern Market (which is the model that Western Development was aiming for back in 1979). Dean and Deluca is as expensive as Whole Foods without the selection. The multiple vendor model failed in the early 80’s due in part to low foot traffic. That’s not a problem now. Could a real market succeed there now?

7 Comments

Filed under Circa

7 responses to “Circa: October 1986

  1. Jim McCarthy

    Wishing that D&D would go under? Mon dieu, sacrilege! Ok, it’s costly no doubt, but it’s also far and away the finest market in the city. Ever, I dare say. It even beats the D&D in midtown nyc, which might make it the premier gourmet market on the eastern seaboard.

    My only complaints are that it gets a little touristy at times and, bizarrely, they won’t make you a sandwich or even slice cheese so you can do it yourself. If D&D had a sandwich counter like Wagshal’s, the place would be off the charts.

    But that’s a quibble. As it stands, I think D&D ought to be a source of high pride for the neighborhood. And who’d a’thunk it considering the tattered history of that space?

    Terrific idea on the new Circa feature, GM. Keep up the great work…

  2. GM

    Best market in DC ever? That is a strong endorsement. Personally I would rather have Central Market back. (And I think Baltimore’s Lexington Market and Philly’s Italian market are both light years ahead of D&D.)

    Thanks for the support. Hopefully I can find enough material for this feature.

  3. Ken Archer

    I completely agree with GM’s wish that D&D would be replaced by an actual market (e.g. producers selling directly to consumers), which seemed to have been the government’s intent. There are now 2 Farmers Markets in Georgetown, 3 if you include Dupont which attracts many Georgetowners. Clearly the demand is there.

    I wonder why the court threw out the neighborhood’s case in 1983? The historical market out in front of D&D says that the building is supposed to be a FARMERS MARKET.

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