In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the owners of two fish markets and a seafood deli located at the Maine Avenue waterfront in Southwest Washington, DC, have sued the developers of the massive “Wharf” project for violating their lease and trying to drive them out of business.
As expected the lawsuit has gotten significant media attention, as the Wharf development (and the related redevelopment of the fish market) is one of the most ambitious in decades in the Southwest quadrant of DC, and these projects look to reshape the city’s waterfront for generations. That this redevelopment is occurring at the oldest continuously operating fish market in America (dating to 1805) was bound to lead to disruptions.
But the lawsuit says that the interferences with the plaintiffs’ businesses have gone beyond the simple disruptions that a tenant could or would expect when a major project is being undertaken nearby. For example, the lawsuit alleges that the developers are purposefully interfering with their use of the common areas (something they are entitled to under their lease), are blocking access to customers and delivery trucks, and ticketing and towing customers’ cars — all part of a “conspiracy” to drive the existing tenants out of business.
As with most landlord-tenant disputes, the outcome of this case will depend on the close reading and interpretation of the parties’ lease, and the provisions contained therein related to use of the common areas, and landlord liability in the event of business disruptions (especially those caused by the landlord itself). As the developer/landlord has stated in this case, “with any large-scale project in a dense urban area, some temporary disruption is inevitable.” I see this out my window here in Bethesda, throughout Montgomery County, and I certainly see it whenever I am down in Washington, DC.
But how much disruption is too much? And where the disruption threatens a long-term business’s viability, what are the tenant’s rights? Does it have any rights? Or is its business just the price to be paid for progress?