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Nonprofit group shares its proposal for a downtown public market

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 15, 2012 04:57 PM

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boston public market greenway side.JPG

(Boston Public Market Association)

An image from the Boston Public Market Association shows how the market could look as seen from the corner Hanover Street and the John F. Fitzgerald Surface Road.

After a two-year process to plan a public market for downtown Boston, only one group offered a proposal to operate the market. On Tuesday, the Boston Public Market Association presented its vision for the site.

The nonprofit group currently operates two popular seasonal farmers’ markets at Government Center and Dewey Square and has lobbied for a decade to see a permanent, year-round market installed in downtown Boston. As in its existing, seasonal sites, the Boston Public Market would sell only local products from farmers, ranchers, and artisans throughout the state.

The future market space sits on the first floor of a building at Congress and Hanover streets downtown, adjacent to both the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the city’s historic open-air Haymarket area on Blackstone Street. The building was constructed on the site of a former parking lot during the Big Dig, but so far only small portions have been put to use as a vent for the Central Artery Tunnel, a parking garage, and an entry for the Haymarket MBTA station.

Along with the pushcart vendors who sell produce, fish, and other products at Haymarket each week, the new year-round farmers’ market is seen as an anchor in a new downtown market district planned to include parts of Government Center, the Blackstone Block/Haymarket area, and the area of the North End facing the greenway.

Historically, this section of the city was home to a lively mix of open-air commerce, but much of that was lost when the elevated Central Artery was installed in the 1950s.

Yanni Tsipis, a member of the association’s board and senior vice president at the real estate firm Colliers International Boston, said the goal was to return some of that vitality. He hopes to create a regional destination where foodies can buy just-caught fish at the public market, fresh tomatoes at Haymarket, and handmade pasta across the greenway in the North End, then take it all home to prepare frutti di mare for their families.

To help encourage this foot traffic throughout the market district, the building is planned to have an open, free-flowing layout with multiple entrances and even walls that could open in warm weather, explained Chris Coios, an architect at CBT Architects who was the original project manager for this building and is now working with the Public Market Association on their plans.

It won’t be easy, though, Coios warned. The building wasn’t designed with a public market in mind, and the association’s plan will require the construction of additional entryways and relocation of utilities. All of that will have to be done without disturbing the building’s other uses as a vent shaft and subway entry.

Donald Wiest, chairman of the association, said the association will need to raise about $11 million through philanthropic donations to retrofit the building, on top of $4 million promised by the state. But Wiest anticipates no borrowing and no other fundraising will be necessary.

“On an operating basis, it will cover its expenses and pay for itself comfortably, but the capital build-out is a high cost,” Wiest said. “It’s going to take substantial philanthropic resources to open this market.”

As a nonprofit, the association’s goal is to make sure it’s the vendors supplying the market’s produce, meats, fish, cheeses, and other products who make money — the goal is roughly $2,000 per square foot for each vendor stall. Wiest said a comparable public market in Philadelphia sees about 6 million visitors each year.

Due to the project’s complexity, the association expects to be able to open the market for summer 2014, if it is the designated operator. It expects to have 40 – 90 total vendors, with 30 – 40 permanently placed in interior stalls and others operating seasonally, possibly extending into the plaza on the building’s greenway side in warm weather. So far, about 70 potential vendors have expressed interest.

The possibility of additional outdoor vendors caused concern for some, especially those already worried the market could cut into sales for Haymarket vendors. Wiest said he believes the two will complement each other, with Haymarket vendors winning on price but the public market having the advantage on local and artisanal products.

Having the markets adjacent, Wiest said, will only drive more traffic to both.

Nancy Caruso, a longtime North End resident serving on the commission reviewing the application, recommended that the association begin talks with the Haymarket Pushcart Association right away to ensure a respectful and cooperative relationship that would benefit both groups. Others in the room agreed.

Wiest said the association plans to maintain its Dewey Square market indefinitely, as both an amenity to those who don’t have time to walk a mile up the greenway to the indoor market and as an advertisement for those who do. The Government Center market, though, could be cancelled due to its proximity to the public market site, though that decision will not be made for some time.

As the only respondent to the request for proposals, the association need only meet the state’s requirements to be selected to operate the market. At the Tuesday meeting, state Commissioner of Agricultural Resources Scott Soares would not give a date when the commission would announce its decision, but declared that it would be “soon.”

The commission will meet publicly to discuss the proposal at 3:30 p.m. on March 19, at 100 Cambridge St., Conference Room B.

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boston public market interior.JPG

(Boston Public Market Association)

An interior view of the proposed public market.

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