Like most other public spaces in this city, Faneuil Hall Marketplace has been a ghost town for weeks, locked up tight for all but the most essential functions.
But while business may be interrupted for the dozens of merchants, large and small, who call the iconic space home, the rent is still due.
You can add the marketplace to the long list of institutions that threaten to be radically affected for the long term by the shutdown. To make matters worse, the huge New York based developer that runs it has shown little willingness to help its tenants survive.
“I’m afraid that some of them aren’t going to make it,” said Linda DeMarco, president of the Faneuil Hall Merchants Association and proprietor of Boston Pretzels. “I’m afraid that I’m not going to make it.”
Faneuil Hall is owned by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (always the BRA to me). But the marketplace is operated by Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. It’s a real estate firm whose impressive portfolio includes South Station and the Fairmount Copley Plaza hotel here in Boston, and such landmarks as Washington’s Union Station, among many others.
So the merchants were guardedly optimistic when they wrote a letter to Ashkenazy asking for some kind of accommodation in paying their April rent.
“None of us will be able to make rent, never mind any payroll until we are able to get back on our feet,” they wrote, in the letter dated March 30. “We are asking for your patience and help with rent and payments. We are in this together and we want to make sure we can count on you to help to bring the Marketplace back to its bustling self again.”
Ashkenazy’s response was blunt: “We want you to know that we are not in a position to relieve you from your lease obligations.” In other words, best of luck to you. The letter also included hyperlinks to government programs lending money to small businesses.
It wouldn’t be fair to say no one at Ashkenazy has been sympathetic to the merchants’ plight. They say General Manager Joe O’Malley seems sympathetic, and they have been told he will be meeting with them individually. But there’s no sense that O’Malley is authorized to make any financial decisions for his bosses in Manhattan, and the plan to meet with tenants individually — rather than making a blanket policy — has raised fears that some merchants will get deals and others won’t.
Faneuil Hall’s eclectic mix of businesses is dominated by small ventures with limited reserves. Many wouldn’t even qualify for something like the Payroll Protection Program being administered (badly) by the federal government, because they’ve already laid off their employees. Ashkenazy told its tenants to maintain their lease obligations, but pushcart vendors don’t have leases. They operate hand-to-mouth.
In response to my questions about working with tenants, Ashkenazy spokesman Christopher Santorelli e-mailed a statement.
“We are in constant contact with The Merchants Association, working in lockstep with them during these challenging times,” it said. " We are optimistic that through a continued dialogue with tenants and public agencies, and as more information becomes available, we will be able to identify solutions to support the community of businesses at Faneuil Hall Marketplace."
BPDA Director Brian Golden wants a firmer commitment.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for nearly every business, family, and individual around the world, it has placed an especially great burden on the tourism and hospitality sector,” Golden said Tuesday night. “In order to protect the small businesses that fuel Boston’s historic Quincy Market, I am calling on Ashkenazy to explore additional resources or alternate business arrangements that will help the merchants during this difficult time.”
A huge real estate company operating a storied Boston institution must do better than this.
Merchants stressed to me that they are not looking for some handout. They would be willing to defer their April and May rent, and address the shortfall at the end of their leases. They want to be able to reopen at the end of this nightmare without the suffocating fear of being too far behind to ever catch up.
To DeMarco, this is a question of leadership. “You have these iconic spaces, be an iconic leader in Boston,” she said. “If you want to be a developer in the city, you need to be a leader. And being a leader is supporting people.”
We are constantly told these days that we’re all in this together. The small merchants at Faneuil Hall hope to see that unity before it’s too late for them.