Making Avenue Market work Pennsylvania Avenue: After $4 million renovation, showpiece emporium is half-empty.

September 20, 1997

NINE MONTHS AFTER OPENING, Upton's African-American showpiece emporium -- the Avenue Market -- is half-empty. The complex itself is attractive and clean as a result of a $4 million redesign and rehabilitation. But the festiveness suggested by flags of African nations is lost with so many stalls having never been occupied.

The market has generated so little traffic that the rents of its merchants were reduced recently. Despite that action, some say they will go out of business, unless patronage improves.

The revamping of the old Lafayette Market into an Afrocentric marketplace was one of the final dreams of James W. Rouse, the visionary developer whose triumphs included Harborplace and Howard County's Columbia.

He felt that adequate shopping was crucial to make the redevelopment of the nearby Sandtown-Winchester residential area succeed. The city and the Upton community bought into the dream. Last December, when the market opened, one veteran neighborhood activist dubbed it an "African-American Harborplace."

Sadly, it is not. Whether it was ever intended as a destination shopping center, the Avenue Market is not that now. It was half-empty when it opened; it still is.

Among occupied stalls are merchants selling fish, meats and vegetables. The complex has a small supermarket and a number of lunch counters, including fast-food franchises.

Since few people outside the neighborhood make a special trip to the Avenue Market, merchants must survive on the patronage of area residents. The market's distress suggests the surrounding neighborhood is too poor by itself to support a venture so grand.

The other possible explanation for the market's disappointing start is that its management firm is not up to the task. If so, it ought to be replaced.

The Avenue Market can be a success, but it needs a better merchandising mix. If the current food stalls cannot make it, perhaps it could work as a marketplace for African-American arts and crafts.

In any event, change is needed. At the present time, the Avenue Market is an embarrassment.

Pub Date: 9/20/97

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