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Turnpike Authority hesitant about proposals for public food market

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / August 6, 2009

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An effort to open a public food market along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is faltering, with Boston officials and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority expressing reservations about the only two proposals submitted so far.

The market would go on the ground floor of an existing building on Blackstone and Hanover streets that houses the Haymarket MBTA station. The five-story building has parking for 310 vehicles and office space, which is currently vacant.

Boston-based WinnCompanies has proposed a market with space for 50 vendors and has said it would move its own offices into the building’s upper floors. Hotel developer Hersha Group has proposed a market, an Italian cafe, and a 100-room boutique hotel that would require the addition of two floors to the building.

But “neither of the proposals was very strong financially,’’ said Peter O’Connor, chief of real estate for the Turnpike Authority, which owns the building. The authority won’t elaborate on those issues while the bidding process remains open. However, officials are considering another round of bidding, which would delay the opening of a market for at least another year.

Boston is one of few major US cities without a daily market for local growers and food sellers. The last traditional market closed in the 1950s, when buildings in Faneuil Hall Marketplace fell so deeply into disrepair that the federal government threatened to close them, forcing most of the vendors to leave.

The authority began soliciting bids in October from developers for a market on the ground floor of the building, known as Parcel 7, and for office tenants for the 46,000 square feet of space above.

The Hersha plan, in particular, is in disfavor at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which also must approve the proposal. BRA chief planner Kairos Shen said Hersha’s plan for a hotel lobby would cut into the size of the public market, effectively making it too small, and would create traffic prob lems, with taxis and other vehicles coming and going all the time. Executives with Hersha did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Shen said the BRA has reservations about Winn’s proposal because of the financial concerns raised by the Turnpike Authority.

“We are concerned that the ground-floor public market, which is the most critical component, could be jeopardized if the financial structure of the rest of the deal is not feasible,’’ he said.

O’Connor said the Turnpike Authority might solicit separate bids for each component of the property: the market, offices, and parking garage. He said he is still reviewing the proposals and expects to make a recommendation to the authority’s board Aug. 20.

Gilbert Winn, managing principal of WinnCompanies, said his company is proposing to pay top dollar for office rentals in that area, and would occupy three-quarters of the now vacant space.

“We believe our proposal is the best and only feasible proposal to get the building back on the tax rolls with a public market and an office tenant,’’ said Winn, who recently took over day-to-day management of the firm from his father, Arthur Winn.

WinnCompanies last worked with the Turnpike Authority on the now-stalled effort to build Columbus Center, an $800 million luxury condominium complex above the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston’s Back Bay and South End neighborhoods. Winn said his firm is now a minority investor in that project, and he does not believe its delays are affecting the consideration of his public market proposal.

Supporters of the market said yesterday that they are disappointed the project is facing additional delays.

“This is not a complicated, ground-up development project,’’ said Donald Wiest, president of the Boston Public Market Association. “Parcel 7 is an existing facility, and opening a public market in its first-floor retail space would not require any significant changes to the building. As a result, we are eager to hear that a bidder has been selected, so we can finally open the marketplace Boston has been waiting for.’’

BRA and Turnpike Authority officials, however, said they could not predict when a bidder will be selected.

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