Once home to one of the country's first public markets, the city faces tough choices in bringing one back

If the long-awaited Boston Public Market ever opens its doors – that is to say, if blueprints finally give way to blueberries – the city will end a half-century stretch without a year-round, indoor marketplace for local produce, meats, fish, breads, and crafts. Which is odd, given Boston’s place in history as the site of the colonies’ first marketplace in the 1630s and America’s first great market hall, Quincy Market, with roots going back to 1742. The absence of a public market in Boston has been called a “hole in the fabric of the city.”

By as early as next summer, officials say they want to start transforming the 26,000-square-foot first floor of a downtown Boston building (known as Parcel 7) into the hub of what they hope will be a bustling market district. The site market organizers chose is in a state-owned building along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the popular strip of urban parkland that used to be Interstate 93. The infamous “Big Dig,” the most expensive public works project in American history, left numerous land parcels, the air rights over several tunnel on-ramps and a few buildings sitting empty along the central artery, many of which were originally promised to nonprofits and cultural institutions. (On the Greenway itself, several developers have backed out of plans to build facilities housing a museum celebrating Boston’s history, a center for arts and culture, an indoor arboretum, and a YMCA.)

Local food advocates and city and state politicians hope the Boston Public Market avoids a similar fate. But difficulty securing a permanent site and the slowness of state government have complicated the market project for over a decade, proving that good intentions are not enough to get a new urban market off the ground in the 21st century. “It’s up the politicians,” says John Lee, longtime general manager of Boston’s Allandale Farm, which has been working the same land and selling its products locally for over 250 years. “I’ve seen it go down the tubes so many times, I’m not holding my breath.”

Boston’s place in public market lore is rich. The earliest American markets brought together farmers, fishermen, and other food producers with the townsfolk and merchants at scheduled, open-air events. With Boston’s rapid growth in the early days of the colony, John Winthrop wrote of a public marketplace on Great Street (now State St.) at the end of Town Dock. Winthrop’s is the first record of a public market in the New World. Eventually, weather, health and traffic concerns caused cities to consider moving markets indoors. Peter Faneuil built Boston’s first market hall in 1742, which was slowly expanded until the 1826 opening of Quincy Market, a project unmatched among public markets in “magnitude and design quality,” according to historian James Mayo. By now, markets were social and political hubs and feeding centers for cities across the burgeoning Republic, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Boston's Quincy Market, pictured circa the mid-1800s. (Wikimedia Commons)

But modern bureaucratic form and the rise of standardization – which combined to prioritize the maximization of production and minimization of costs – began to undermine public markets across America, says Alfonso Morales, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin. As a result, Morales says, Americans’ “habits and expectation about what there was to consume and where they could consume them began to change.” A few bigger department stores and drug store chains gave way to the rise of supermarkets, the preferred method for Americans’ food procurement for over a half-century.

Only in the last 30 years have cities begun to rethink the role of public markets. After many were torn down in the mid-20th century, a few have stood the test of time – notably, Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Station Market – their endurance a testament to the status they’ve garnered as not only culinary centers, but as social connectors. David O’Neil, an independent consultant on public market projects around the world, says the social benefits of markets must be considered equally alongside their role as food distribution centers. The convergence of urban and rural, rich and poor, producer and diner leads to relationships that give people a feeling of connection, he says.

But years ago, “we broke, for the most part, with the tradition of shopping in public markets,” says O’Neil, who consulted with the Boston Public Market Association. “That tradition was centuries old. There was no day when that started going downhill. The slow demise of the public market systems did go down, and we are out of practice.”

It’s a practice many cities are now interested in relearning. More than 100 public markets are currently in operation in the United States, many of them founded or revitalized only in the last quarter-century. Count Boston among these. O’Neil, along with the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces, has consulted with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the market’s feasibility. In their report, issued earlier this year, they endorse Parcel 7 as a location for the market, suggesting a public-private partnership for managing the market, and projecting up to $19.5 million in food sales annually.

Two blocks over from Parcel 7 is the site of the old Quincy Market, now a touristy outdoor mall and food court. Quincy Market has not been a public food market since the 1950s, when it fell into such disrepair that the city nearly bulldozed it. A semblance of the spirit of Quincy Market has, for decades, lived on each weekend at Haymarket, a boisterous tent city where thousands converge on Fridays and Saturdays to scoop up leftover wholesale produce for rock-bottom prices. Proponents of putting a public market nearby envision a synergy being formed with Haymarket – along with pushcart vendors and storefronts down several side streets – to create a multi-block market district for food shoppers and tourists. An indoor public market would become the year-round hub for the district, with space for 100 vendors selling breads, cheeses, meats, fish, and produce.

Parcel 7, behind the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Courtesy Project for Public Spaces

But the Boston Public Market proposed for Parcel 7 bears little resemblance to either Quincy Market or the great market halls seen in Philadelphia, Seattle or New York. Those were all vast caverns of culinary delights, their 70,000-plus square feet of products giving shoppers more than enough options to fill a tote. By contrast, Parcel 7 is on the smaller side and lacks the grand, airy feel of other great American markets. Supporters of the location point to the popularity of Haymarket – which draws around 15,000 customers each Friday and Saturday, depending on the weather – as proof that locals will shop there. But Haymarket is by-and-large a discount market for those spending between $10 and $30 per trip, according to the PPS study. Along the Greenway, tourists, says John Lee of Allandale Farm, will be the market’s bread and butter.

“Given the location, I don’t know if the suits are going to stop by on their way home [from work],” Lee says. “I’m sure [organizers’] fantasy is that a bunch of local people shop there, but I just don’t see that happening.”

Still, after scouring one of the country’s toughest real estate cities for a site, organizers say Parcel 7 was easily the best they were going to find to house the market.

“Finding 30,000 sq feet of retail in the city — there’s not a lot of those,” says Don Wiest, president of the Boston Public Market Association, which will vie with the state to manage the market. “Getting one who’s not occupied by Neiman Marcus or some other high-paying tenant, that’s not an easy task, and we were incredibly fortunate to find it.”

Interest appears high among producers for the approximately 100 retail spots at Parcel 7, though optimism is laced with caution. David Warner, founder of locavore grocer City Feed and Supply, said he’ll need to see the final offer to vendors before he decides whether he participates. Ann Starbard of Crystal Brook Farm (which produces chevre goat cheese) will consider joining a collective booth with other Massachusetts cheesemakers, but acknowledges that not knowing how successful the market will be is “like jumping into the puddle blindly.”

No doubt weighing on the minds of Boston's public market proponents is the fairly recent demise of the Portland Public Market in Maine. The New York Times reported in 2007 that vendors were paying less than $20 per square foot in a market that cost nonprofit The Libra Foundation $75 per square foot to maintain. Ultimately, they could not get the market to a break-even point and were forced to sell, sending 28 vendors scrambling to find another location to sell their goods. It's a cautionary tale about the difficulty for private entities alone (especially nonprofits) to make the economics of public markets work.

With the commonwealth of Massachusetts only able to promise $4 million of the $10 million needed to open the market, Wiest says the future of the market depends on the association’s ability to raise the remainder of the capital. He acknowledges that with the fundraising needs and amount of renovations necessary to build out Parcel 7, 2013 is probably a more realistic target for beginning the work. Plus, he says, when you’re depending on public funding and management, there are always higher priorities for officials than moving forward on a public market.

“The market’s biggest problem is that everyone likes it. The reality is you’ve got to get people in to push for this thing or else it will drag out,” Wiest says. “You’ve got to get urgency behind something that everyone thinks is going to happen.”

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