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Florida Avenue market poised for resurrection

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

It's not always a good sign when a developer invites name brand politicians and restaurateurs to unveil its plans to renovate a historic part of the nation's capital. So, I was a bit wary when EDENS, based in South Carolina, invited Mayor Vince Gray and the city's foodie royalty to a Sunday supper at Union Market, a warehouse center stage in the Florida Avenue Market.

Many of D.C.'s best chefs turned out signature dishes for a family-style feast to benefit the James Beard Foundation and FoodCorps. Sadly, I could not make the scene.

But I am more interested in digging into EDENS' plans for Florida Avenue Market, a warehouse district that holds a place in my heart and taste buds. After reporting and checking sources, I am prepared to brush aside my initial wariness and pin four stars on the developer's menu for remaking its section of the market.

"We want to be a part of a project in a truly authentic part of the city," EDENS President Jodie McLean said. "The market is a storied part of D.C. We want to bring in high-quality, locally prepared fresh produce, meat, poultry and fish."

The 45 acres on the city's east side lies in the triangle where New York Avenue crosses Florida Avenue. Its location alone has had developers drooling. It is the next frontier east of NoMa and Union Station. It's not far from the development around H Street Northeast.

Jodie McLean has it right on the market's authenticity. Its roots go back to the Central Market, opened in 1802 in a grand structure between Seventh and Ninth Street along Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1928, the city kicked out the farmers to redevelop the avenue. The National Archives occupies the Central Market's spot. The farmers relocated east to their Florida Avenue spot. They thrived for decades, but in the 1980s, the market fell on hard times. It got funky and gritty.

In 2006, a developer with the backing of Councilmember Vincent Orange got the City Council to support a plan that would have scraped off the market and created a "new town," with high-rise hotels and housing. It was beat back, thankfully, by some property owners and the recession.

Paul Pascal, an attorney whose wife's father was a butcher in the Central Market, helped stave off the "new town."

"I like EDENS' plans," Pascal says. "It will allow the market to grow and change but still allow room for small players to operate."

The developer has built quality projects up and down the East Coast with shopping centers that meld into the community. In D.C., it has attracted local retail and restaurants to City Vista, its project at Fifth and K Streets Northwest. Already, it has turned the Union Market back to its original shape and made connections with the city's foodie elite.

"We believe our role, and the role of retail is building community," McLean says. "And food is at the heart of every community."

It was the heart of D.C.'s immigrant community in 1802. Why not revive it 210 years later?

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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