Leading horses to water is simple for Boston’s carriage drivers. Getting them across it is another matter.
That, carriage operators say, is why a plan to move the staging area for their horses across the river to Charlestown could sink their businesses. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is scheduled to vote Thursday on the proposal, which would turn over the current staging area on Northern Avenue to redevelopment.
The Charlestown site, near the Terminal Street boat launch, is about the same distance as the existing site from Faneuil Hall, where the carriages pick up passengers. But the journey from Charlestown requires the horses to cross the mouth of the Charles River on North Washington Street — a bridge with a section of iron grate decking that’s distinctly unfriendly to horses.
Because the horses can see the water below, “they think they’re going to fall through the bridge,” said driver Paul Bowman. That could cause the horses to spook, taking off in busy traffic with a driver in tow.
And, he said, the metal surface provides no traction for horseshoes, and the bridge’s condition could allow for a misplaced hoof to fall into a stray hole.
“I drive the carriage everywhere around Boston,” said Bowman, who drives a Clydesdale named Nellie and a Percheron called Charlie, among others. “The only place I can’t go is those bridges.”
While some horse operators insist the move could mean the end of their business, the BRA does not seem inclined to back off its plan.
The Charlestown site was the only available option, said Nick Martin, director of communications for the BRA. It’s unfortunate, he said, if the spot doesn’t prove feasible for carriage operators.
“We’ve supported them for a number of years,” Martin said, including the recent effort to find a new staging area.
But the land on Northern Avenue has simply become too valuable. “We see this as being a favorable real estate market,” Martin said.
Since 2008, the staging area on BRA-owned land near Yankee Lobster Co. has been used by several operators to hitch the horses to their carriages.
The horses, which live on farms west of the city, clomp up Seaport Boulevard to Faneuil Hall, crossing a paved bridge on the way into downtown.
But the route they would take from Terminal Street would bring them over unsteady footing.
“That’s definitely not a wise thing to do,” said Enika Schembari, who trains horses at Boston Equine in Pembroke. “It could cause them to spook and then they’ll take off,” she said, explaining that horses and humans have different depth perception.
In fact, she said, similar metal grates known as cattle guards are used to keep horses from crossing roads.
“If they get spooked, they’re going to bolt,” Schembari said, and in traffic on a busy city street, that could turn very ugly. “A lot of people could get hurt.”
Sally Sutherland, who owns Bridal Carriage Company — one of four businesses being offered leases at the Charlestown site by the BRA — said she fears the move means she will lose her business, which consists of five carriages. Four operators, with about a dozen carriages among them, would be affected by the move.
Sutherland’s efforts to find private land to lease for staging have led nowhere. Leasing two spots at the Northern Avenue site costs $600 a month, plus another $200 to rent the two containers that house her carriages. The price would increase slightly at the Charlestown site, but she said that is out of the question.
“We don’t want to put our horses or our drivers in harm’s way,” Sutherland said.
If the plan is approved Thursday, the Northern Avenue land will soon be shopped to developers. The land is zoned industrial, the BRA’s Martin said, so its uses are somewhat limited.
“My feeling is the city is just pushing us out of business,” said Oscar Foster, who owns Elegant Touch Carriage and its two carriages. It’s a difficult business, he said, driven by uncertainty that’s both seasonal and day-to-day. On Wednesday, his carriages were not operating because the weather was too humid.
The safety concerns presented by the bridge would be something else entirely. Foster once owned a horse trained to cross metal grates, but such horses are rare.
“The horses I got now? I don’t know,” he said.
Jake Kennedy, who founded Christmas in the City with his wife, Sparky, said potentially losing horse-drawn carriages downtown would deal a blow to Boston.
“I’m a downtown Boston guy,” Kennedy said. “We think it’s a great addition to the city and to tourism.”
Sutherland’s Bridal Carriage Co. donates rides to Christmas in the City every year, Kennedy said.
“If the city lost her, it would be horrible,” he said. “The horse-drawn sleigh ride going through the park is one of the best things we ever had.”