Faneuil Hall’s promised retail revolution? We’re still waiting
When it opened in 1976, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace was a marvel.
More than 100,000 spectators sipped champagne at the ribbon-cutting of the restored Quincy Market, transformed from a tattered wholesale marketplace into a cosmopolitan consumer magnet. Mayor Kevin White, standing on the portico of the Greek Revival landmark, told the assembled crowd: “This market is yours, the public’s. Use it, enjoy it.” In an era when cities sacrificed dearly for revitalization, it was the rare urban renewal story that locals and tourists alike could enjoy.
The marketplace’s prominent position on the Freedom Trail, next door to historic Faneuil Hall itself, quickly helped it draw foot traffic that now seems staggering: 32 million visitors a year patronized its collection of quirky local storefronts, food vendors, and pushcarts.
“It was the second biggest tourist attraction in the US, after Disney World,” said Christopher Muller, a professor in the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. “It was a destination, but there was really nothing else in Boston.”
Now, surrounded by change, Faneuil Hall feels frozen in time. It’s “Boston” to outsiders, but no longer represents what the city has become. Its collection of chain stores — Ann Taylor, Coach, Victoria’s Secret — can be found in any mall in America, and its nondescript food stands cater largely to the tastes of tourists. The landlord, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., acknowledged as much after it took over the site in 2011, and has repeatedly promised to transform the market into a destination that would also draw locals.
But news this month that a local legend, the restaurant Durgin-Park, would close after two centuries of operations has left some Bostonians frustrated. Why, they argue, isn’t Faneuil Hall Marketplace, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, more reflective of the city, its passions, and its people?
Kathy Lyons, who came with her husband from West Roxbury to pay respects to Durgin-Park last week, said she saw little reason to visit Faneuil Hall after the restaurant closes.
“When it first opened it was so much fun,” she said, “but now it’s like a suburban shopping mall.”
Joe O’Malley, the general manager of the site, argues that change takes time. He said that foot traffic has remained steady in the year and a half that he has been in the role, with 18 million visitors now wandering through the marketplace each year. The more than 100 retailers there just finished a strong holiday season, he said, with total sales topping $100 million in 2017, up 6 percent from 2015.
“It took 20 years to get that stigma of a tourist trap,” he said from his office overlooking the market. The turnaround, he asserts, will be much faster than that.
Ashkenazy and the city are in the midst of renegotiating the terms of its lease; what the city is hoping for is unclear, and neither the city nor the management group would comment on the state of negotiations. O’Malley said he is trying to be creative in finding tenants, but he’s focusing on updating the facilities, which haven’t been renovated in four decades. New HVAC systems, lighting, and signage will be installed this year.
But what of the promised new open retail spaces, bars, and high-quality local eateries that could bring in more Bostonians?
“The plan is still the plan, but we’re not as far along as we’d like to be,” he said.
The task isn’t an easy one. For one thing, Faneuil Hall’s role as the hub of the Hub has been diminished as the physical landscape of the city evolved. Downtown Boston has seen a transfiguration in recent decades, with the dismantling of the Central Artery, the creation of the Greenway, and opening of the Seaport District.
The retail landscape of the city has shifted as well, with the Seaport, Fenway, and Somerville’s Assembly Row now siphoning off shoppers. Even the food hall, an early hallmark at the marketplace, is being reimagined elsewhere around town. At least three more are being built in the city right now: High Street Place in the Financial District, Time Out Market in Fenway, and The BEAT in Dorchester.
Ashkenazy has made a few modern additions to Faneuil Hall, including the Japanese casual wear designer Uniqlo and high-end beauty chain Sephora. But the most recent updates have lacked inspiration. Last year, the food stalls in Quincy Market saw the addition of a Starbucks, New York’s Magnolia Bakery, and Legal Fish Bowl, Legal Seafood’s fast-casual concept. The pop-up shop 1630, which sold New England antiques and collectibles in the South Market building, was replaced by American Rhino, a purveyor of goods made in Africa.
Susan Battista, the co-owner of 1630, which has relocated to the Kimpton Nine Zero hotel on Tremont Street, said that during her three years of operations, she never heard anyone articulate a vision for what the reimagined market might be.
At the start of the lease, “we were under the belief that this was the dawn of a new day at Faneuil Hall,” she said. The thrill of working in the historic marketplace was undercut by frustrating management decisions such as the installation of a sausage vendor outside her front door and the arrival of national chains that seemed too lowbrow for the “most exciting, important parcel of land in Boston,” she said.
When Battista’s lease was up, she said, she was offered a 250-square-foot storefront that wouldn’t meet her needs. O’Malley says they could not agree on a location.
“We presented a local concept that made sense in the environment,” she said. “When it came time to go, we saw what was around us and we said, ‘I don’t know if our brand should be here.’ ”
Linda J. DeMarco, president of Faneuil Hall Marketplace Merchants Association, said in a statement that the association has been working closely with management to offer 250 free events throughout the year to attract tourists and “is looking forward to working with management on future events and programming to entice visitors from near and far.”
But one pushcart vendor, who asked not to be identified for fear of running afoul of management, said Ashkenazy should do more to bring higher-quality food options to the site, particularly now that 15,000-square-foot Durgin-Park is closing its doors.
“We need better restaurants,” she said. “You need some kind of draw down here.”
Corey Bialow, a real estate broker who represents a range of national restaurants and retailers, including By Chloe and Indochino, said it hasn’t been for lack of trying on Ashkenazy’s part. Bialow said the company demonstrated its turnaround skills in its revamping of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, but Faneuil Hall’s stuck-in-the-’90s reputation creates a “chicken-or-egg” predicament.
“Every site tour we’ve done in the last five years, nobody wants to look at Faneuil Hall,” he said. No innovative retailer wants to take the leap in a space without other newcomers in tandem.
Still, he said, a bold move on the management team’s part could spark a retail revolution at the city’s signature marketplace.
“There’s no question in my opinion that they’re leaving money on the table by not having a better mix of tenants on the retail and restaurant front,” Bialow said. “I’d love to see Faneuil Hall become the best Boston has to offer, not something from 1978.”