Working in the Quincy Market food court is the only job George Maherakis has ever known. But he’s never known anything quite like this.
The general manager of Fisherman’s Net gets more worried by the day as he watches an unprecedented number of vacancies pile up around him at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. About 20 tenants have closed for good or have not reopened since the pandemic began, representing nearly one-fourth of the property’s stores and restaurants. The latest, and perhaps most notable: The Cheers replica bar poured its final drink on Sunday.
Maherakis, who started working at the marketplace as a teen in the 1990s, said he might have to sell his Woburn home if he can’t get another mortgage deferral from his bank. The seafood stand that he runs with his father now rings up $400 to $600 in sales on a typical good day. But some days, he puts only about $200 in the cash register. That’s less than some dinner checks at the city’s fancier seafood places.
“It’s scary,” Maherakis said. “We’re working for free, to pay for our employees and our food, just to stay open.”
Sales were down 85 to 90 percent at Fisherman’s Net and numerous other mom-and-pop vendors at the marketplace, tenants say, compared to July and August of last year. Merchants blame the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects: Fewer tourists swing by now, though some days are busy. The city’s rules block the jugglers, buskers, and hustlers who used to give the marketplace’s cobblestones some life. And don’t look for help from the office towers next door — they’re still empty, or close to it.
Ask merchants about the closures, though, and they blame something else, as well: their landlord, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.
The New York company, they say, hasn’t adequately funded marketplace promotions and has let the cleaning and other upkeep slide. After some pressure from city officials, Ashkenazy agreed to defer rents until 2021 for the April-June period, when most of the complex was closed. That’s simply not enough for the vendors, who say they need forgiveness for those months they couldn’t open, and a new rent structure that reflects the staggering drop in foot traffic.
They worry that Ashkenazy overpaid for the marketplace’s long-term lease, in a $140 million deal about nine years ago, and now they could end up paying the price.
Sorting out the dispute that Faneuil Hall Marketplace is becoming poses a significant challenge for Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his administration. The city-owned property has long been one of New England’s busiest tourist attractions. Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, said Ashkenazy has an obligation to help the locally owned businesses survive. But he also said the lease gives the city little authority to compel Ashkenazy to do so. (The 99-year lease was first signed in 1975 with a previous company to help revive the property.)
Golden wrote to Ashkenazy in June, seeking relief. That was before the marketplace reopened on July 1 and the closures began to cascade. A spokeswoman said the city has not sent any follow-up correspondence in recent weeks, although city officials and the developer remain in “constant contact” about the issue.
A spokesman for Ashkenazy said the company is in frequent contact with the BPDA and other city officials about identifying ways to sustain the businesses at Faneuil Hall. He said the company has spent some $20 million to improve the property in recent years and continues to clean and maintain the complex. Ashkenazy recognizes that the pandemic has significantly dampened demand for retail space, but remains confident that high-quality tenants will see the benefits of setting up shop at the property.
Some have suggested that the city give Ashkenazy a break on its $4.2 million annual tax bill, paid through a “payments in lieu of taxes” program — as long as the tenants benefit from a big chunk of that reduction. The Ashkenazy spokesman said the developer and city officials have been in talks to modify this obligation to the city, and that any such change would directly benefit the tenants. While rents have not been collected since March, he said, many tenants still need additional relief.
Any fix won’t come in time for restaurateur Tom Kershaw and his top lieutenant, Markus Ripperger. Like other Faneuil Hall tenants, they usually make enough in the summer months at their Cheers restaurant to withstand the slow winter months. Not this year. Instead, the establishment, which Kershaw opened 20 years ago to replicate the set of the TV show, is losing money. (The original Cheers pub in Beacon Hill, formerly the Bull & Finch, remains open.) Plus, Ripperger said Ashkenazy was unwilling to bend on the requirement to eventually pay off all the back rent, making the permanent closure inevitable.
Sara Youngelson, treasurer of the Faneuil Hall Merchants Association, tallied up more than 40 food stalls, stores, and restaurants and 20 or so pushcarts still open during a walk-through on Friday. However, with Cheers closed, three corners of the central Quincy Market building are now empty. (Anthem and Dick’s Last Resort are also closed, although owner Briar Group says Anthem’s closure is temporary.) And the vacancies are adding up.
Youngelson said her three shops probably won’t survive if Ashkenazy forces her to pay all of the back rent she owes. Her group sent its request for relief to the developer in July, she said, but it’s still waiting for a proper response.
The association’s president, Linda DeMarco, said city officials don’t seem to believe they have enough legal recourse to kick Ashkenazy out and would lose that case in court. In the past, she said, the crowds obscured just how badly the complex needed a face lift. She expects the marketplace to endure for the long-term, but that it will require some sort of reinvention.
Lindsay Lamattina, co-owner of Boston Chowda and Wicked Lobsta, isn’t so sure. She said Ashkenazy will probably never see the rents it once charged, at least not until the foot traffic fully returns. She and her brother employ about 20 people at their two shops — 20 reasons to fight for the shops’ survival.
But she also eyes the calendar warily: The state’s moratorium on evictions expires in mid-October. What will happen then? She worries about her back-rent bill, which could get close to $1 million by April. And she’s concerned the Walsh administration isn’t pushing Ashkenazy hard enough.
“If something isn’t done about the rent, every single business will close,” Lamattina said. “We’ve been through a lot, and it’s never been this bad.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.