DC’s Next Union Market?

by Rebecca Cooper

A rendering of Half Street Market.

Residents of the Velocity condominiums near Nationals Park have some great views: the U.S. Capitol, the Anacostia River and Nationals Park. But it is the view of an empty, government-owned warehouse across the street from the building that has turned out to be the most inspiring.

After walking by the building each day, Velocity resident Nathan Alberg began to see the potential for a great community asset. Now, he’s working with some of his neighbors to make that idea a reality.

Within those 1924-built walls at 49 L Street SE, Alberg and others, including fellow Velocity resident and newly-elected ANC commissioner Ed Kaminski, see Half Street Market, a flexible community space with room for food vendors, a culinary education center, an event space and, eventually, a restaurant. Vendors at the publicly owned market would sell prepared and artisanal foods in the main hall from stalls that could be moved in order to maximize the flexibility of the space.

“It would appeal more to the entrepreneurial food business than what I would call the old-style grocer.” Kaminksi says. “There would be a slow churning of these vendors in and out, a business-creating incubator for culinary type businesses.”

View of the L Street warehouse.

Little overlap with Eastern Market

The idea of the multi-use market isn’t new in DC; Eastern Market has anchored Capitol Hill for nearly a century; more recently, the concept was reinvented with much fanfare at Union Market in Northeast.

Neither of these markets is terribly far from Capitol Riverfront, which raises the question: would this new vision be successful? The group touting Half Street Market believes it would, but they’re also conducting a neighborhood survey to find out.

“I think of a very different experience than what you [get at] Eastern Market,” Kaminksi says, noting that the food offerings would vary from the market not too far away. In the same way, Union Market provides a different dynamic than Eastern Market, Half Street Market would do the same.

Eastern Market Advisory Committee Chair Donna Scheeder doesn’t believe there would be too much impact from the addition of the new venture on L Street.

“There’s probably a place for all things, particularly because that neighborhood is growing,” Scheeder said.

Draft floor plan for Half Street Market’s second floor.

Increasing the market for retail

Retail growth in Capitol Riverfront has been slow, thanks in part due to the financial crisis. Last year, the city tried to run a retail market at the Fairgrounds, lining up vendors to inhabit brightly colored shipping containers, only to have the market’s manager bail on the project before it really got going.

But Kaminski, who was also recently elected to the neighborhood ANC, believes the volume will be there for Half Street Market — especially if it is built out in phases.

“We think that we can grow the base, and then bring new business models in as the area matures,” he says. “There is a lot of new residential going in here, and some of these retail dynamics are going to change pretty quickly.”

The market’s visionaries also heavily emphasize its proposed educational component, envisioning a “teaching restaurant” and instructional space that could be built on the building’s roof. Public school students would receive culinary training, and vendors would be required to mentor students in how to run a small business.

That aspect will likely be vital to clearing the biggest hurdle in the market moving forward: getting the General Services Administration (GSA) to convey the building to the city at a significant discount.

Market needs support from many players

To become a reality, the market’s supporters would have to submit a plan for an educational public benefit conveyance, a program offered by GSA that allows for the conveying of properties at a substantial discount — anywhere from 40 to 100 percent of their value, Kaminski estimates. And, according to Kaminski, while GSA has not put the building up for sale, agency representatives told the market’s proponents that they intend to change the property’s status “in the near future.”

“If the only way we could do this is to buy the property, that would be a nonstarter,” Kaminksi says. “It is worth probably $20 million.”

So supporters are in the process of drumming up backing from all the parties they would need involved: Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells — they’re meeting with him next week — the city’s Department of Education, other educational partners and food startups. They’ll eventually also need to start working with development partners and forming a non-profit legal entity.

It could take awhile, but Alberg is looking down the road when he thinks about Half Street Market. Knowing that the other big event-type space in the neighborhood, the Fairgrounds, will eventually close when the property is developed, he sees a future void.

“It would be nice to have something in the area that has sort of a festival/market feel to it,” Alberg says. “Something that provides a public amenity, other than the stadium.”

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/capitol_riverfront_dreams_of_dcs_next_niche_market/6538

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