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Some local greens on the Greenway

Long-sought public market on road to reality

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / June 25, 2011

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A public food market in downtown Boston will feature up to 100 vendors of fish, produce, wine, cheese, and other local products in a facility that will feel more like a bustling European bazaar than a grocery store, according to an operating plan released by the state yesterday.

After years of false starts and dead ends, state agricultural officials unveiled a detailed layout and financial plan for the market that will operate out of a state-owned building on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near Faneuil Hall and the Haymarket pushcart vendors.

Officials plan to have the 27,500-square-foot market open seven days a week, selling prod ucts consumers can now get only at farmers markets and other out-of-the-way venues. Construction could begin in early 2012, with the facility opening later next year.

“This will be an opportunity for people to have direct contact with Massachusetts farmers and fishermen, and the products themselves,’’ said the state agricultural commissioner, Scott Soares. “It will also be a great educational opportunity that will increase the awareness of the agricultural identity of the Commonwealth.’’

A consultant hired by Soares’s department devised an optimal inventory and layout for the market, with dozens of stalls to be leased annually or seasonally by local vendors. Though the consultant, Project for Public Spaces, suggested that some prepared dishes, such as pizza and sandwiches, be available in the market, it cautioned against allowing a food-court vibe to take over the space. All businesses in the facility should be locally owned and operated, the consultant said, and the products should be affordable.

“The public’s enthusiasm is high for this project, and many see this market as both an opportunity to showcase the region’s bounty and create a major community gathering space along the Greenway,’’ Project for Public Space’s report said. “Customers will be looking for high-quality, well-priced items that are unique to the public market.’’

Boston is one of the few large cities in the country without a public food market to showcase its culture and cuisine. The city’s last traditional market closed in the 1950s, when facilities in Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market fell so deep into disrepair that the federal government threatened to close them, forcing many vendors to relocate.

Pushcart vendors operate at Haymarket on weekends, but they aren’t a true public market as their products come from wholesalers, not local farms and fishermen.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he wants the market to serve as a centerpiece of a new district focused on the city’s food traditions.

“We will create a hub for the best local foods our state and region have to offer,’’ the mayor said. “It will be a great complement to our growing array of food initiatives which promote healthy eating options as well as stronger economic partnerships.’’

Local restaurateurs have also joined the campaign for the market, saying it will allow the region’s consumers and farmers to benefit from a food renaissance that is encouraging more people to buy local.

“Having a year-round market featuring primarily Massachusetts products will put Boston more firmly on the map as a serious food place,’’ said Chris Douglass, chef and owner of the Ashmont Grill and Tavolo in Dorchester, and a member of the advocacy group Boston Public Market Association. “We don’t have huge growing spaces, but we have these small postage-stamp farms that have a lot of variety and are part of New England’s heritage.’’

But while the expectations for the market are large, the space available to vendors is small — only 14,000 square feet, far less than similar markets elsewhere.

City and state officials hope to turn its modest size into an advantage — by using the indoor market as the catalyst for creating a larger district of local food sellers around it.

City residents and the state’s consultants have said they would also like to see vendors and market activities spill outside onto the surrounding plaza and the Greenway, with the possibility for seasonal food festivals, outdoor music, and other entertainment.

The market would cost about $8.5 million to design and build, according to the consultant, and Soares said the Patrick administration will allocate $4 million toward the project. Those funds include small operating subsidies for the first several years, but the report estimated the market would quickly pay for itself, generating up to $19.5 million in annual sales.

The state will soon solicit bids from private entities interested in managing the market, and Soares said officials are leaning toward a nonprofit operator. A public board will also be appointed to help establish and oversee the market.

One group interested in operating the facility is the Boston Public Market Association, which for more than a decade has spearheaded efforts to open a standing market downtown.

“This building on the Greenway lends itself to a dense, bustling, and vibrant public market environment,’’ said Yanni Tsipis, a member of the organization’s board. “This is a complex undertaking that requires a sponsor that can bring the required complement of resources to the table.’’

The market’s operator would still have to raise at least $4.5 million for its construction, and get a variety of state and city permits.

Also, while the facility’s planned location is seen as a plus — it sits over a major transit stop and next to a popular public park — it also carries an array of challenges: The building was designed to disguise ventilation shafts for the Interstate 93 tunnel, not to house a food market. The structure also contains a 310-space parking garage, has only one small loading dock, and lacks enough exhaust outlets to allow for much on-site cooking.

Its brick and metal exterior suggests an industrial site, meaning the operator will probably have to use conspicuous signs and other flourishes to help identify the food market inside.

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

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