The More Things Change

Larry DiCara remembers his first encounter with Mayor Kevin White. It was 1971. DiCara was newly elected to the Boston City Council. The mayor phoned. Would DiCara meet with him?

The young DiCara, outfitted in his best suit, entered the mayor’s office at the new city hall. White stood at the window overlooking Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. White said he had two goals—depress the Central Artery and fix Quincy Market.

White accomplished one goal while still in office. In 1975 Quincy Market and later the North and South Markets opened to immense excitement, bolstering Boston’s downtown success.      But accomplishing that task was much like the Olympics effort today. The knives were out. Pessimism ruled. Doom was predicted. Costs rose. A bold, perhaps transforming plan was mocked, scorned, condemned and denounced.

What saved it was a visionary, a prime mover, a deadline and a tough mayor.

Architect Benjamin Thompson articulated his vision for a successful city when his contemporaries were designing big empty plazas.

“Of all the pieces in the urban puzzle, the marketplace is the most fundamental, most civically important—and most neglected,” he wrote in the Boston Globe, July 4, 1971. “Historic marketplaces, springing up at intersections of navigation and trade routes, were the seed and heart of cities.”

Thompson cited the “natural pageantry of crowds.” He predicted that the crumbling Quincy Market and its flanking buildings could be brought back to life, recreating their original purpose in a contemporary way.

After a false start with one developer, Thompson found the Rouse Company. Rouse developed shopping malls, but also had created Columbia, Md., where housing was built around old-fashioned town centers instead of the usual suburban sprawl.

James Rouse was the prime mover. The Globe’s real estate reporter Anthony Yudis quoted him: “We should always examine the optimums and forget about feasibility. It will compromise us soon enough. Let’s look at what might be and be invigorated by it.”

White was excited by the plan. He wanted Quincy Market completed by Boston 200, the city’s bicentennial celebration, set to begin in 1975. Rouse would fund a portion of the celebration. Out-of-towners Chase Manhattan Bank and what is now called TIAA-CREF put up half the money or $10 million. Boston banks would provide the rest.

The critics erupted.

The meat, cheese and produce purveyors that occupied Quincy Market complained they would be displaced, and the renovated building would be unaffordable. Rouse’s promise they could return for three years with the same rent they were paying in the old building did not move them.

White’s own staff put up a fight. DiCara remembered that Herb Gleason, White’s corporation counsel, supported a scaled-down proposal by Roger Webb, admired for his reclamation of Old City Hall.

As city property, the markets needed approval from the city council for any deal. Yudis reported there was little interest in either proposal. Only three councilors attended the hearing at which the two were presented. The councilors were too busy fussing over the proposed Park Plaza. Yudis wrote, “Some urban experts think the Faneuil Hall-markets plan is the ‘sleeper’ in the future Boston that could have just as much significance as, if not more than, the Park Plaza concept.”

 DiCara said it was a tough sell. Dapper O’Neill, Joe Tierney and Freddie Langone opposed the market’s redevelopment, but the proponents were finally able to get six councilors, including DiCara, to vote for it, mainly because of Rouse’s good reputation.

Remarkably, the BRA worked against the Rouse proposal even after the company was designated in 1973.

It took the BRA two years to sign a lease. The BRA board chair predicted the whole enterprise was foolish. “Only one sour note was expressed — several times following the lease signing,” Yudis reported. “The chairman of the BRA, Robert T. Farrell, made it clear to those connected with the project that, in his opinion, the project never will be carried off. Time will tell whether this was an astute observation.”

The BRA director, Robert Kenney, had no faith either in Rouse’s plan. Three months before the market opened he was still working to change it, trying to get a Hyatt Regency hotel into the mix, with the lobby in the rotunda, reported Ian Menzies, a Globe columnist. Rouse was having none of that.

Thompson said putting a hotel into the market was like the recently completed Harbor Towers on the harbor—a way to keep the public out.

Then there was the money problem. Boston banks refused to come up with their share of the financing. By early February 1975 Mayor White had had it. He called the heads of the local financial institutions to his office, recalled Budge Upton, Rouse’s project manager, who, with Rouse, was at the meeting. White told the banks they had 24 hours to arrange the local financing or he would pull the city’s money from their institutions. By the next day White had $10 million from the First National Bank,  John Hancock,  New England Life, State Street Bank, New England Merchants, National Shawmut, Charlestown Savings, Union Warren, Commonwealth Bank and the Mass. Business Development Corp.

            A few months later, Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened. Among many last-minute snafus, said Upton, was awaiting the delivery of 80 wheels for the pushcarts. They arrived at Logan three days before the opening. No one knew if the rehabilitated market would attract any notice.  But on the first day 125,000 people showed up. Menzies then started writing about how the Central Artery had to go—another effort fraught with negativity. It goes to show—conventional wisdom is sometimes just conventional. It isn’t wisdom at all.

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