The company that operates Faneuil Hall Marketplace is learning just how tough it can be to tinker with history.
Last year, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. unveiled its plan for the iconic Boston property:
a dramatic makeover designed to make it more of a year-round destination and a magnet for a broader array of visitors.
But those plans are running into resistance as a number of tenants — many of them waiting for new leases and worried about their future — refuse to buy into Ashkenazy’s vision. They now have an important ally: the woman who helped redesign the three-building complex in the 1970s.
Rather than making the market more accessible, Ashkenazy’s critics fear the changes will turn the quirky labyrinth of vendors, visited by some 20 million people each year, into another high-end mall geared to rich shoppers.
The battle over Faneuil Hall’s future came to a crucial point last week at the Boston Landmarks Commission. The critics walked away with two key victories. The commission denied plans for two new glass enclosures alongside the marketplace’s central Quincy Market building and delayed for 90 days the demolition of a vacant greenhouse on the edge of the property.
“The public realm is going away with these changes,” said Jane Thompson, a Boston designer who helped create the modern Faneuil Hall Marketplace along with her late husband, architect Benjamin Thompson. “This will not be a market anymore. This will not be a landmark anymore.”
Even Ashkenazy’s critics would agree with the New York company on this point: The nearly 350,000-square-foot complex has grown a bit tired over the four decades since its 1970s rebirth, and could use some rejuvenation. But the merchants worry their concerns aren’t being considered by Ashkenazy, and that many will be kicked out for good.
“We could use the upgrades,” said Carol Troxell, co-owner of four stores at the marketplace and president of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace Merchants Association. “We just want to make sure the local merchants have a place here. . . . We are just worried there would be too many national [chains] coming.”
Ashkenazy says it plans to pump $40 million to $60 million into renovations over several years. The company has won Landmarks Commission approvals to replace many of the cobblestones with flat pieces of granite, to make the ground easier for walking, and to install an outdoor deck in front of the South Market building. And construction is underway on a new ground-floor entrance at Quincy Market to draw shoppers into a second-floor space that will be occupied by the Japanese apparel retailer Uniqlo.
Barry Lustig, executive vice president at Ashkenazy, said he doesn’t want to mess with what makes Faneuil Hall special. He said the amount of space dedicated to local businesses would decrease only minimally, during the next year or two. And he said he has no plans to raise the rents on the tenants that remain, at least not until a substantive growth in foot traffic can justify an increase.
“It would be foolish of us to remove what makes Faneuil Hall important today, which are the local merchants, the local flair,” Lustig said.
There are big plans in the works for the property. A reworking of the Quincy Market food court. A new glass-enclosed store — possibly a Sephora — replacing the existing greenhouse. A nearly 200-room hotel in the South Market building.
“We see them gentrifying the marketplace, so as to accommodate only the wealthy,” said Philip Loheed, an architect who worked with the Thompsons to design the marketplace in the 1970s.
But there are more city approvals needed. Ashkenazy doesn’t own the marketplace property. Instead, the company has owned a master lease with the city since 2011. Partly because of the city’s ownership, the Boston Redevelopment Authority plans to scrutinize Ashkenazy’s master plan.
BRA officials say they want to referee some sort of truce between Ashkenazy and the unhappy tenants, many of whom had complaints under the previous management company, as well. Ashkenazy will also be asked to defend its plan for the property at the authority’s July 16 meeting.
The Landmarks Commission has been approving these changes on a piecemeal basis. But the BRA wants to review everything at once.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh “is committed to preserving the character and historic nature of Faneuil Hall, while creating an area that is accessible and attractive for both Boston’s residents and visitors and continues to fuel Boston’s tourism sector,” spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin said.
Boston architect Howard Elkus said that his firm, Elkus Manfredi Architects, deliberately designed flexible new outbuildings that could provide an open-air experience in the warmer months and be enclosed with glass during the colder months. The marketplace suffers in the winter, he said, as tourism traffic slows.
“The whole thought is to try and change that equation and to really try to make this entire place a year-round, active ingredient of Boston’s daily life,” Elkus said.
But Thomas Kershaw, owner of the Cheers bar and store at Quincy Market, isn’t pleased with what he’s seen so far. One of the glass structures that was denied by the Landmarks Commission would have blocked views of his restaurant, and construction on the Uniqlo entrance has disrupted traffic to his souvenir store.
“These architects are one thing,” Kershaw said. “[But] people like myself who run businesses . . . down there have a different perspective of what’s going on there.”
Jeff Allen has sold pewter goods made by local artisans at the marketplace for 36 years. But he’s not sure how much longer that will last: The Boston Pewter Co. owner’s lease expired in March. The new management has yet to grant him another lease, and he’s renting on a month-to-month basis, he said.
Harry Haralabatos, the owner of Aris BBQ in Quincy Market, also worries about the type of marketplace that Faneuil Hall will become under Ashkenazy’s continued management.
“They’re overzealous with what they want to do,” he said. “They’re just tearing things down and making it another Mall of America.”