Downtown Crossing pushcarts to leave soon

A Downtown Crossing business group is shutting down a pushcart program that has operated for over three decades, angering many of the 27 vendors who stuck it out through lean times in the shopping district, now in the midst of a dramatic makeover.

Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, a group of property owners in the area, said consultants are working on plans to launch a smaller and better pushcart program next year. Meantime, the current crop of merchants—who sell fruits and vegetables, hats, handbags, and other goods—have until the end of this month to push their carts some place else.

Sansone said the association expects to offer new and existing businesses will be able to apply to participate in an interim pushcart program later this spring so the district can experiment with different product mixes and locations.

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“Vendors have always been a staple of the Downtown Crossing area for many years, but many of the carts and merchandise needs to be upgraded as the area is revived,” she said. That revival includes a gleaming tower that will rise from the former Filene’s department store site and be one of the city’s tallest buildings.

But Linda DeMarco, who runs a Boston Pretzel stand in Downtown Crossing, said that while she knew of general plans to improve the pushcart program, merchants were never told the current one would be scrapped when annual permits expire at the end of March.

“It’s being so abruptly stopped,” DeMarco said. “We vendors have been suffering through challenging times in Downtown Crossing and waiting for changes to come through. It’s a good sign to see more retailers and residents and the redevelopment of Filene’s. We want to be part of it and not just tossed aside.”

In the last year or so, the long-drab Downtown Crossing has become a major construction zone as developers try to capitalize on the improving economy and an influx of young professionals into Boston. New residences are being built in Downtown Crossing—with more planned— and trendy restaurants and other niche businesses have either opened or are on the way.

But prior to this activity, the area suffered through a long drought brought on by the recession, its streets pocked by empty storefronts and—especially—the large excavation pit where Filene’s once stood. The pushcart program, which had more than 40 vendors in 2007, lost 23 spots around the Filene’s building and required owners with multiple pushcarts to abandon at least one. Some found new locations but others left on their own, unable to make it through the turmoil.

That long-stalled project, which came to symbolize the plight of the district, is finally moving forward.

Geoffrey Lambert, who runs a fruit and vegetable stand in Downtown Crossing, said Sansone pressed pushcart owners to support the business district group when it was forming several years ago. Lambert said she spoke at the time about enhancing the program, but didn’t take much action beyond handing out matching shirts and umbrellas.

“She is ready to push everyone to the side now,” he said. “We thought it was going to help us out. Now I have to find a new living.”

Vendors who persevered at Downtown Crossing during the tough years should be commended, said Randi G. Lathrop , the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s director of business development division. She said the district is embarking on a revitalization effort that will ultimately result in positive changes to the streetscape, signage, and businesses.

Among the changes Lathrop envisions for pushcarts is a more diverse mix, including artists, as well as higher-quality carts like those at Faneuil Hall and Copley Place. She noted that several outdoor vendors currently stationed in the neighborhood sell the same hats and bags.

A survey of about 500 people in Downtown Crossing was recently conducted by the consultants to find out what shopping options customers want. The feedback will help guide requests for proposals for the permanent pushcart program, said Lathrop.

“It’s important for the [Downtown Boston Business Improvement District] to carefully work with pushcart operators that can contribute to these areas,” Lathrop said. “These are small business and are vital to the area.”

The best businesses with the most unique or popular merchandise will participate in the transition program, according to Sansone. But she could not promise most of the existing vendors would remain or provide details on how many carts will be permitted for either the downsized interim set-up or the permanent one.

“Many have been asked to correct some of the ways they display their goods. They don’t always respond,” Sansone said. “Some people can rise to the standard and some people have not really done so.”

Some merchants said they would like right of first refusal when the new program launches given their longterm commitment to Downtown Crossing.

“There should have been a seamless transition giving those business owners that want to stay the option to do so,” said Craig Caplan, who runs two carts, The Unique Boutique and Boston Souvenirs, and leases out six others. “Don’t you think the people who managed to keep Downtown Crossing alive during difficult times should be allowed to be there during the good new times? There is no need to put people out of work.”