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Downtown Crossing to shutter pushcart program

Pushcarts lined Washington Street in 2009.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Pushcarts lined Washington Street in 2009.

A Downtown Crossing business group is shutting down the pushcart program that has operated for more than 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 its 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 someplace else.

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

“Vendors have always been a staple of the Downtown Crossing area for many years, but many of the carts and merchandise need 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. The business improvement district, a voluntary association of property owners that aims to raise money for stepped-up services, runs the pushcart program, and the Boston Department of Public Works issues permits since the carts operate on city streets.

“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 the district — with more planned — and trendy restaurants and other niche businesses have either opened or are on the way.

But prior to this burst of activity, the area suffered 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. That long-stalled project, which came to symbolize the plight of the district, is finally moving forward. To clear the construction site, the pushcart program — which had more than 40 vendors in 2007 — had to vacate about 20 spots. Some of the displaced merchants were able to relocate nearby, but others left the district.

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 did not take much action beyond handing out matching shirts and umbrellas to vendors.

“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 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, Lathrop said.

“It’s important for the [Downtown Boston Business Improvement District] to carefully work with pushcart operators that can contribute to these areas,” she 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, and that could include new merchants such as food trucks. But she could not promise most of the existing vendors would remain or provide details on how many carts will eventually be permitted.

“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 the first shot at the permits when the program launches given their 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.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.
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