Downtown View:The Vision-Where Is It?

July 22, 2015
By

Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the operator since 2011 of the city-owned Faneuil Hall Marketplace, has been in recent tussles with its merchants, pushcarts, street performers and history-loving Bostonians. After public outcry and several meetings, some matters may be worked out.

The latest round occurred last week when the BRA board, showing little knowledge and only a smattering of interest, approved Ashkenazy’s “vision” for FHM.

The BRA should look at Ashkenazy’s plans more closely and with history in mind. Right now there is little evidence this company understands the market’s early retail success or how festival markets work. It has presented no evidence it can entice Bostonians to return to the market they flocked to in the 1970s and ‘80s.

According to Barry Lustig, Ashkenazy’s executive vice president, the company’s “vision” is to continue to attract tourists, 85 percent of whom visit the market. Plans for a hotel, a compatible use that would operate mostly on upper floors, ought to help increase tourist traffic.

Lustig wants to increase total traffic from 22 million annual visitors to 30 million, so part of his “vision” is to lure back Bostonians, whose interest in the historic marketplace has faded.

BRA board member Ted Landsmark asked Lustig, “What’s the thing that would get Bostonians there?

“Celebrating the architecture,” said Lustig. He waxed poetic about the architecture. Is architecture going to lure Bostonians who already have a surfeit of 19th century buildings to enjoy?

Landsmark did not follow up.

Not that Lustig’s plans for the architecture aren’t good. He plans to light the buildings strategically and reveal the interesting interior walls of Quincy Market now hidden behind refrigerators. But it’s hard to see how good lighting and revealing the walls will entice us to spend time at the market.

What he didn’t mention in answer to Landsmark’s question was that earlier in his presentation he had described ping-pong tables and other games he thought would draw Bostonians. A good park, in other words.

At the public meeting in early July he was even more specific. He described Bryant Park, which he said was a marvel for the nation.

“This property has the opportunity to be second only to Bryant Park,” he went on.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace second to something in New York?

To a park?

Oooooooo!

Did he notice the market is adjacent to an actual park, the Greenway, modeled to some extent on Bryant Park?

He kept talking about a park, but what Bostonians want is a good marketplace.

It was just that in the beginning. If they really are interested in history, as Lustig says they are, Ashkenazy should look at the market’s early success.

In 1976 and throughout much of the 1980s, FHM was quirky, local, vibrant and fun. Bostonians thronged to the place. There was no need for ping-pong because it had retail luster.

The Bear Necessities was probably the best of the best. Its teddy bears, priced from $5 to $500, had something for everyone. Its local owners, Tim and Nancy Atkins, knew retail entertainment. The bears’ names—Scarlett O’Beara, Douglas Bearbanks, Bearishnikov. Those alone made you want to check out the merchandise.

In 1982 the shop held a Bring Your Own Bear contest that drew 150 entries and many spectators. The shop drew children and adults, locals and tourists, who came upon it with delight and surprise.

“The retail was definitely unique,” Tim Atkins remembers of the early Faneuil Hall Marketplace. He recalled the Celtic Weavers, Pave Real, The Boxes, a scrimshaw place and Have-a-Heart—independent stores with merchandise unavailable elsewhere. Secretary of State John Kerry even had a store called Kilvert & Forbes, with hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Many of these independent stores were successful.

Then in the late 1980s, when some of the independents faltered, the operator replaced them with chains. Bostonians stopped going. Even the chains had problems. Atkins recalls a national store selling umbrellas with butterfly decorations. A woman loved them. Her husband said, “Let’s wait. We can get this back home in the Scottsdale mall.”

About the same time as the chains came in, the Atkinses closed the Bear Necessities. “We expanded beyond our business acumen,” Tim Atkins said. “We did it too fast and didn’t have the business experience to manage other stores and a mail-order catalog.”

Nevertheless, they never had any problem with sales at FHM. “We had a great response from customers,” he said.

The downside, Atkins acknowledged, is that local, quirky, vibrant and fun retailers sometimes lack experience and can run into financial difficulties.

This is where an expert, hard-working operator would add value—shepherding retailers with unique ideas into businesses where sales go through the roof.

Hearing Ashkenazy’s plans as they stand now, Bostonians will yawn. Sephora—a dime a dozen. Uniqlo may entice a few teenagers.

            If Ashkenazy would actually study the history they say they revere, they would find retail models for play, entertainment and attraction for Bostonians. It’s called imagination, outreach and true retail skill. It’s in the history they say they want to re-create.

  • Charlie

    What would make Bostonians go there? Food that is not mediocre and overpriced. Shops that are unique but also fill the everyday needs of people who live and work in the city.

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