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Hungry for public market, city plans site

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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After a decade of false starts, Boston officials are moving to open the city's first daily public food market since the 1950s in a building along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, hoping to provide a permanent indoor showcase for the state's farm products and local cuisine.

The market would be opened in a vacant building that occupies a full city block near Haymarket, an area of old cobblestone alleys where city officials want to create an expansive year-round shopping district with dozens of local growers, bakers, seafood merchants, and other businesses.

Two firms have filed proposals to redevelop the Blackstone Street property and both have included ground-floor space for a food market and cafe. Adjacent land near the weekend Haymarket, known for its cheap produce and seafood, is also being con sidered for a second public food building.

"It's a missing piece of the city's fabric," said Don Wiest, the president of the Boston Public Market Association. "The products we have to sell in Massachusetts are second to none, and we have an opportunity to create what should be one of the great public markets of North America."

Boston is one few major US cities without a daily public food market. The last traditional market closed in the 1950s, when buildings in Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market fell so deep into disrepair that the federal government threatened to close them, forcing many vendors to relocate.

Faneuil Hall has since become a successful tourist attraction with dozens of retail stores and restaurants, but the public market has largely disappeared, with only the Haymarket pushcart vendors left along stretches of Blackstone and Hanover streets. But those vendors, known for barking at patrons who linger too long over a cart of apples, operate differently from a true public market because they get their products from wholesalers, not from local farms and fishermen, and they operate on Fridays and Saturdays instead of daily.

A New York consulting firm hired by the city to study possible market locations has recommended the Blackstone Street property, next to the Haymarket MBTA station and across from the Greenway, as the centerpiece of an expanded district for food vendors between City Hall and the North End. "We believe the city ought to develop a public market, and it should be located within this historic sector," said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city's planning arm.

The recommendations for the indoor public market call for the development of a marketplace similar to Pike Place in Seattle or Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, both highly successful attractions that provide a unique window into the culture of those cities. Those markets are open daily and feature dozens of local vendors selling regional produce, wine, seafood, artisanal cheeses, and crafts.

The effort to establish a market in Boston has been tied up in a decadelong debate over the best location in downtown Boston, which has been changing rapidly with the development of the Greenway. Outdoor markets have been opened on the Northern Avenue Bridge, City Hall Plaza, and on land near South Station, but there has never been a successful proposal for a year-round indoor facility.

Local farms and agricultural businesses have long sought a daily market because of the expense and complication of traveling to Boston to participate in weekend farm stands. Massachusetts farms rely on local markets because of the lack of major agricultural distributors in the state to buy and sell their products.

"Until now, we haven't had a mechanism to get farm products directly into Boston," said Nathan L'Etoile, government affairs director for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. "But this is a location with a high concentration of consumers with expendable money."

Still, some skeptics of putting the market on the Blackstone property - known as parcel 7 - are concerned the 26,000 square feet on the ground floor is not enough space to accommodate a full-scale market. The size of public markets in US cities varies widely, from 78,000 square feet in Philadelphia, to several city blocks in Seattle, to about 29,000 square feet in Cleveland. Some planners said Boston's market must be on the larger side to attract enough daily business.

"If you've got one or two cheese guys and a couple of produce vendors, how successful is it going to be?" said Samuel "Sy" Mintz, a former city planner and architect of the nearby Millennium Bostonian Hotel.

But Wiest said there is also space to expand the market onto a plaza in front of the building. "Our market's going to have an accordion-like quality," he said. "The plaza is ideally scaled to expand outdoors, especially in the summer."

Otto Gallotto, the president of the Haymarket vendors association, said he is generally supportive of the proposal, but problems could arise if developers eventually seek to expand the market by building a second facility on Blackstone Street, where the pushcart vendors operate on weekends.

"There has to be an alternative for the pushcarts during construction," said Gallotto, who nonetheless added that the combination of the two markets could generate significant foot traffic in the area.

The proposal for the parcel 7 market is being considered by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which owns the five-floor office building and parking garage, and solicited bids for its redevelopment last October. The authority also is seeking a developer for the adjacent property near the pushcart vendors on Blackstone Street. Proposals for that property are still being collected and are not yet public.

Meantime, Turnpike officials and city planners are holding a meeting next week to consider plans for parcel 7 filed by WinnDevelopment of Boston and Hersha Development Corp. of Philadelphia. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

WinnDevelopment, owned by Arthur Winn, is proposing to move his firm's offices into the building from Faneuil Hall. The firm, which is developing Columbus Center, wants to build the food market, a restaurant, and cafe on the ground floor. About 50 local vendors would be allowed to rent space in the market, and the adjoining restaurant would feature their products on its menu. A spokeswoman for the firm said it would like to start construction this summer.

Hersha Development, a national hotel developer, wants to build a 100-room boutique hotel in the building, along with the public market, and an Italian cafe, according to its proposal. A representative of Hersha, Mike Barrett, said the firm would seek to build about 23 stalls for vendors and begin construction in 2010. He estimated renovations to the building would cost about $37 million.

The Turnpike Authority must select one firm to redevelop the building, and the BRA would then approve a final proposal. It would likely be two to three years before the market could open.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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