For the second time in as many months, the Boston Cannabis Board on Wednesday delayed a vote on whether to license a proposed marijuana store in Faneuil Hall, with members of the agency saying they’re concerned the downtown area is becoming “saturated” with pot retailers.
Board chair Kathleen Joyce praised the “unique” plan by Soul Cannabis to open a pot shop in the space previously occupied by the historic Durgin-Park restaurant. In addition to a marijuana sales floor, the dispensary would include extensive community space and even a recording studio led by music director Michael Bivins of New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe fame.
But Joyce said she was concerned that six other cannabis companies within a half-mile of the space have either opened or are awaiting state licensure after receiving final approval from the city. She led the board in a vote to delay the decision until February, after its members have done more research on how cities in Colorado, California, and other mature marijuana markets have managed a crush of prospective operators.
“This is a struggle for me,” Joyce said. “I don’t think there’s any place else in Massachusetts that has the same density we have.”
Under state law, Boston must eventually allow about 52 marijuana retailers to open in the city. To meet that threshold, however, the city will increasingly be forced to issue exceptions to a longstanding local rule mandating a half-mile buffer between all cannabis facilities.
While the Zoning Board of Appeal has the final say over exceptions to the buffer rule, Mayor Michelle Wu has moved to cut the ZBA out of the process, with officials in her administration calling it a “duplicative” step and accusing the zoning board of making “arbitrary” decisions that prompted lawsuits from spurned applicants. Some neighborhood groups and at least two city councilors oppose the change, arguing it would stifle the concerns of nearby residents.
Joyce and other Cannabis Board members said Wednesday they doubted the ZBA would approve yet another exception in the downtown area, and suggested that holding back Soul Cannabis could actually be to the company’s benefit if the ZBA is removed from the approval process in the interim.
“Even if we were to grant it, who knows what will happen at the ZBA?” board member Darlene Lombos said.
Lombos added that while she is concerned about competition between locally-owned cannabis firms, she still believes the dense downtown area can support more marijuana stores than the buffer zone rule would ordinarily allow.
“I do think they all have their own distinct area and their own clientele,” she said, referring to the stores approved so far by the city. “I don’t see us putting too many establishments in this area.”
Victor Chiang, the chief operating officer of Soul Cannabis, said his company also believes Boston’s dense downtown can support more marijuana retailers than other neighborhoods. And he argued the project would help revitalize Faneuil Hall, which has struggled with vacancies and depressed foot traffic amid the pandemic.
“Our analysis really does show that Faneuil Hall is sort of its own micro-ecosystem within the city,” Chiang said in an interview. “People who shop there don’t go down to the Financial District and vice versa. We strongly believe that this part of the marketplace is making a comeback, and that it can support its own dispensary without affecting the others nearby.”
Chiang called the board’s delay “disappointing,” noting that Soul Cannabis must continue to pay rent on the empty space while it waits. But he also said he empathized with the dilemma of deciding how many pot stores is too many in a single neighborhood.
“On the retail side, I see lots of room for the market to grow — we’re nowhere near the density of Colorado,” Chiang said. “But it’s a hard question and I don’t envy them for having to figure it out. For us, we’re left in a little bit of limbo.”