The pushcart vendors in Downtown Crossing have received a reprieve until the end of May from Mayor Menino, after they complained of ignominious treatment by the nonprofit Downtown Boston Business Improvement District and its partners at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. That buys some time to determine how and where the pushcarts fit into the future of downtown Boston. Both sides should use it to reach a productive compromise.
Rosemarie Sansone, president of the business improvement district, said that her group’s intention all along has been to upgrade the pushcart program, not eliminate it. That message, however, wasn’t received by the vendors, whose city permits were due to expire at the end of this month. They say they were kicked to the curb by Sansone’s group.
Pushcarts are perfectly compatible with the kinds of luxury residences, new retail shops, and first-rate office space now in the planning stages or under construction downtown. Small kiosks and pushcarts help to break up the urban landscape. And shoppers who browse the carts are often inclined to continue their journey into nearby stores. Pushcarts are good for business overall and contribute to the urban buzz.
The long-planned creation of the 34-block Downtown Boston Business Improvement District in 2010 was an act of faith on the part of local property owners who pay an assessment for graffiti removal, capital improvements, and sidewalk ambassadors. The roughly two dozen pushcart operators who sell handbags, hats, vegetables, and other goods embraced that effort after suffering through many lean years in the depressed downtown area. Pushcart operators also contributed to the overall beautification effort with rent payments averaging $600 per month. They belong in the business district every bit as much as a new, gleaming tower planned for the old Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing.
The vendors, meanwhile, can benefit from research conducted by the business improvement district. A recent survey found that customers are drawn to fruits, vegetables, flowers, prepared foods, and handcrafted goods sold from pushcarts. Purveyors of souvenir sweatshirts, hats, and sunglasses should be open-minded about inventory changes as more residents and office workers move into the area. The pushcart operators also must be willing to show some flexibility regarding locations as construction intensifies.
Sansone, whose grandfather operated pushcarts in the old West End, worries that some owners of new buildings and their tenants may resist the pushcart program. Her job is to convince them that appealing urban spaces call for both glass skyscrapers and wooden carts.