By Karen Cord Taylor
Forty-year-old Faneuil Hall Marketplace has recently had a tough time, especially since the New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation took over the ground lease and became the manager of the retail and restaurant businesses five years ago.
Although it is Boston’s top destination for tourists, it is less popular with residents, who reportedly flocked to the refurbished BRA-owned historic structures when they first opened.
Although it was envisioned as a “festival” mall with local vendors, over the years its spaces have been filled with an increasing number of national mall chains, including the most recent addition, Uniqlo, and coming soon, make-up giant Sephora, making for a lesser “Boston” experience for some.
Marketplace managers and local marketplace vendors have clashed, with vendors complaining that Ashkenazy won’t give the locals long-term leases, that some have been pre-emptively kicked out, and others have been moved to lesser locations to make room for chains in more visible areas of the marketplace.
Finally, proposed renovations have met with complaint from both vendors and neighbors.
Enter Joe O’Malley, Ashkenazy’s new general manager. Aged 34, Dorchester-born, Dorchester-bred, South Boston-bred too, cousin of Marty Walsh—who was like a big brother to him, charming, friendly, optimistic, and determined to succeed. He’s had a background in retail, starting at Patty’s Pantry in Dorchester as a teen and working up to the convention center for the last ten years. O’Malley started at the marketplace in April. Will he be able to work through the difficulties?
“I want to bring it up to where it should be,” O’Malley said of the marketplace. “I’m working to be the conduit among all parties.”
O’Malley said one objective is to give the market a facelift by power washing and by replacing the rough, cobbled bricks with a smooth granite surface for easier walking. He wants to also complete the new glass building on the Congress Street corner that replaces the smaller, Ben Thompson-designed structure, which was not winter-proofed.
He said he wants to attract more Boston-area residents, which now comprise only 25 percent of the 20 million annual visitors at last count. He has installed tables and chairs for families. He said he wants the merchants’ association to help determine what type of crowd the vendors want. This summer, the market successfully hosted book readings, chess tournaments, dance classes, outdoor yoga and other offerings to attract the college-age and after-work crowd.
O’Malley doesn’t buy the fact that some people think national chains are boring, are better patronized on the internet and make Faneuil Hall look like every mall in the country. “I want a good mix of local versus national,” he said. He did not, however, spell out what that mix is.
He has reached out to a Dorchester non-profit, the Bird Street Community Center, to sell from a pushcart the blown glass its students produce in its glass-blowing program. He has also approached a Somerville non-profit to discuss how its members might participate. He has focused on these non-profit consortiums because he said he understands that individual artists and crafts people have trouble finding the time to both make their products and sell them.
Then there is the matter of long-term leases. Jeff Allen of Boston Pewter Company, which has been at the marketplace for 39 years, has had no lease for many months. O’Malley said he offered Allen a longer lease. Allen said the terms offered were not acceptable, especially where they said that after one year Ashkenazy could either relocate or terminate him with 90-days’ notice and wanted him to sign a confidentiality clause. The two are still battling it out.
Other leases? Unclear, said Carol Troxell, president of the market’s merchant’s association. She said vendors understand the need during construction to relocate a business or gain access to utilities within an individual space and are trying to be patient. But putting merchants on hold for too long disrupts their ability to get financing or make bulk purchases.
Nevertheless, she said the local merchants welcome O’Malley. “He’s new, young and very likable and understands the need for leases,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best.”
. O’Malley is vague about the renovations Ashkenazy proposed many months ago. He won’t be pinned down on either the type of renovations or their timetable. He said everything is in the concept phase, except for having “shovels in the ground” for the new paving by October, 2017.
Right now, there is little to worry about profit-wise. Faneuil Hall Marketplace is enjoying its best year out of the last five with an increase of more than $1 million in sales so far over last year.
Profits are one thing. Resolving the conflicts are another. At least it will be easy to measure O’Malley’s effectiveness if by next year enough local merchants have signed long leases, if tempers have simmered down, and if the renovations are supported by both vendors and neighbors. If O’Malley, with his charming ways and optimistic outlook doesn’t succeed, who can?