Downtown View: The More Things Change

At Faneuil Hall Marketplace, an out-of-town manager doesn’t understand how to run a Boston business. Local businesses are  ousted to make room for chains. The manager believes the pushcart vendors, with their dubious tchotchkes, bring down the tone of the place. The vendors, however, accuse the manager of shutting them out of decision making and imposing unsustainable restrictions on them. Accommodating tourists sometimes conflicts with attracting locals.

                These conditions could describe Boston’s festival market at this point, as it was revealed at a Boston City Council hearing in December. On the one side was the poised and articulate Kristen Keefe, general manager of the marketplace, who described plans for the market’s renovation. On the other were a pushcart vendor, a sandwich shop owner who is being pushed out, and Jane Thompson, who with her husband, Benjamin, envisioned and designed the repurposed market in 1972. Thompson decried the mall atmosphere of a market she said was formed with the public trust, since the BRA and the City of Boston own the buildings.

                But the first paragraph actually describes Faneuil Hall Marketplace when it first opened, according to Deborah M. Hanley, whose retail development and marketing company, Todreas/Hanley, worked with the original leasing team and helped put in place such local purveyors as Hebert Candies, the Bear Necessities, start-up restaurants, and the old meat and cheese purveyors who first occupied Quincy Market, the central building.

                Hanley said her company was the only Boston-based firm working with the Rouse Company, a shopping mall developer based in Baltimore. Within a year it was clear the market was a success, she said, but it had already started to change. By the time the South Market opened, chains were replacing local businesses. Tensions between the pushcart vendors and the management company were constant. Eventually the Rouse Company got rid of the old cheese and meat purveyors, who weren’t bringing in enough money, and moved in fast-food places. Hanley was disappointed with the ultimate result, which became more like a traditional shopping mall. “It’s always been about the big bucks,” she said. “There’s no reason to go down there.”

                And Bostonians claim they don’t go to Faneuil Hall Marketplace.  I confess I sometimes do. Once in awhile, we’ll meet at a restaurant. Our grandchildren love the street performers and the ice cream shops, located a short walk from the Greenway’s carousel.

                Hanley, though, points out that her daughter, Amanda, 26, does not meet her friends at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Instead they go to the Back Bay or Central Square.

                Keefe said at the hearing she wanted to attract more Bostonians. But judging from the pictures she showed, it is not ALL Bostonians. The architects’ renderings show the renovated rotunda of the Quincy Market building with a bar featuring up-to-date architecture and young, fashionable people Amanda’s age.

                Luring Bostonians back to the market doesn’t seem to be the only goal. Ashkenazy plans to install a small hotel along a side street that could use some vitality. Not a bad idea, but it will bring more tourists, not locals.

                Quincy Market, which is the middle building, does look dowdy, and Ashkenazy’s refurbishment is welcome. The pushcart vendors accused Keefe of planning to eliminate them, since architectural plans showed no pushcarts. Keefe claimed that was not the case. They said she was secretive, deceptive and refused to let them participate in a planned redesign of their carts. She sidestepped these accusations at the hearing, and did not answer emailed questions for this column, so maybe they are right.

                Keefe’s plan for the market seems to be to increase the number of chain merchants. Uniqlo, for example, an international chain featuring cheap clothing, will expand into a second floor space in Quincy Market.

                Increasing the number of chains could be risky, said Jesse Baerkahn, a retail specialist. Local is fashionable in more than just food. He said the best idea would be to find businesses “that are unique to Boston and offer something you cannot get anywhere else.”

                But taking that route has problems too. Chains pay their bills. Keefe reported that 40 percent of the merchants at Faneuil Hall Marketplace are in arrears. Keefe did not credibly explain why her company has allowed so many merchants to get behind on lease payments. Nor was it clear why the merchants could not afford their rent.

                After all, apparently Faneuil Hall Marketplace attracts more visitors than the Great Wall of China. Travel and Leisure magazine reports that Faneuil Hall Marketplace is the eighth most visited attraction in the United States with 15 million visitors. Wikipedia says it is the seventh most visited attraction with 20 million visitors.

                Whatever the number, and whether Bostonians go there or not, it is probably a good idea not to mess too much with success.

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