Back in the 1970s, when Mayor Kevin H. White looked out from the fifth floor window of his City Hall office, he came to see not crumbling, rat-infested buildings, but Boston’s future: the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, an early, shining, example of new city life created out of old space.
Nearly 50 years later, Mayor Martin J. Walsh looks out the same window and sees a big problem: A once wildly successful tourist attraction is now a shadow of itself. According to a recent Globe report, one-fourth of Faneuil Hall businesses haven’t reopened due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tenants are desperately seeking relief from the city, and from the marketplace operator, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. of New York.
In a recent interview, Walsh said he’s hindered by the bargaining dynamics of the White era, which produced a 99-year lease giving “total control” of the property to the operator, who pays only $10 a year in rent. “Kevin White was brilliant in creating it,” said Walsh, of what is often referred to as Quincy Market. The deal? “Not so brilliant," said Walsh.
The lease was signed in 1975 by Robert T. Kenney, the director of the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority, one of the first to champion urban renewal plans for the area. But of course, as mayor, White, who died in 2012, gets credit for making it happen, and blame for what, today, looks like a sweetheart deal.
Unfortunately for Walsh, blame won’t solve his problem.
In his defense, White — who was first elected in 1968 — saw Boston as an urban mecca when others saw a city of tough ethnic neighborhoods, torn further apart by school desegregation. The area behind Faneuil Hall was a no-man’s-land, occupied by a few cheese and meat companies. The city jump-started its revival plans with some federal money. After a stroll around the grounds with a charismatic mall developer named James W. Rouse, White decided to hire Rouse’s Maryland-based company. The Chase Manhattan Bank of New York came through with a $10 million loan; a consortium of 11 Boston banks reluctantly put in another $10 million.
On opening day — Aug. 26, 1976 — at least 100,000 people turned out to enjoy free champagne, cake, and pizza. By its second anniversary, the Globe described it as “a sparkling symbol of urban renaissance.” When White left office in 1983, Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, wrote, “It can be mocked for its artificiality, but the mockers are foolish, because the Marketplace proved to be the most successful regenerator of public life in downtown Boston.”
Looking back at it now, Micho Spring, who served as a deputy mayor during the White administration and now chairs the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce board, said: “The reinvention of Quincy Market was a gamble that Boston had a future — and it worked.” To Lawrence S. DiCara, a Boston lawyer, who served on the Boston City Council at the time of the market’s creation, “It was a linchpin, a turning point.” Quincy Market, said DiCara, led to the Big Dig, a revitalized waterfront, and ultimately to the Seaport district.
Fast forward to 2020. Even before the pandemic, a once-revolutionary concept — to revitalize old buildings and turn them into a food and retail destination — was looking tired. Then came the economic apocalypse of COVID-19. According to city officials, Ashkenazy has agreed to let tenants defer rental payments for the period between April and June, when the marketplace was closed down, over the course of 2021. The city continues to press for rent relief for the slow business months since then.
Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the BRA), said Ashkenazy wants to extend its lease another 50 years. “You can’t contemplate the extension of a 99-year-old lease without a commercially reasonable rent and language that gives us reasonable input," said Golden.
A recent appraisal puts the current value of the property at $200 million. In 2019, Ashkenazy paid $4.1 million to the city, under a payment in lieu of taxes agreement.
Somehow, Walsh must get this company to look beyond greed, self-interest, and an agreement from another era. A mayor of Boston can’t let what came to life right outside his city hall window die.