By Seth Daniel
It didn’t come without a great deal of careful conversation, but GTI Properties eventually got the neighborhood nod of the Old Dover Neighborhood Association on Tuesday night, Feb. 21, to expand the popular SoWa Sunday Market to also include Saturday.
The proposal by Mario Nicosia and his team at GTI eventually won out in a packed-house vote of 23-7.
With the backing of Old Dover, the application for the Saturday and Sunday Market at SoWa will go to City Hall on Monday, Feb. 27, before the Special Events Commission.
It didn’t come easy for GTI or for the neighborhood, as President Ken Smith guided a soul-searching community conversation for more than an hour. Business and restaurant owners pleaded their case, saying that times are very tough and they only really do business on Sundays when the Market is operating. Beyond that, they said, business typically doesn’t exist or is sparse, meaning that the prospect of an additional Market day on Saturday meant a second day of better business.
That was overlaid by many residents with equally grave concerns about the fact that they feel trapped on Sundays by the surge of people coming to the Market. That, they said, makes it difficult to run errands, go food shopping or leave for the day. The prospects of having another weekend day trapped in their home was burdensome, if not frightening.
Nicosia won over most of the neighbors in the end by conceding to some mitigation points.
First, he said they will do a better job with traffic on both days – routing cars directly from I-93 down Albany Street to his GTI parking lots under the Expressway.
“Honestly, I’ve looked at the traffic and cringed too,” he said. “The traffic we have to manage better. We promise to be more aware of that and mange it better. We have to.”
A key point was that Nicosia pledged to allow free parking on Saturday and Sunday to South End residents in the area who feel inconvenienced by the Market. That accommodation would allow them to get in and out of the neighborhood during Market days and help them not to feel so trapped.
He also promised to be more vigilant about trash all the way over to Washington Street and E. Berkeley Street after the Market ends, and he pledged to place temporary trash barrels on both sides of Harrison Avenue.
The proposal is to have the Saturday Market accompany the Sunday market for six months of the year between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The mix and operations of the Market would be the same for Saturday as it is for the existing Sunday Market.
Nicosia kicked off the proceedings by presenting his idea for Saturday, saying he found that during the special Winter Festival and Market last December, Saturday was more of a urban day. He said he felt like a Saturday SoWa Market might drive more city dwellers to SoWa, and fewer of the suburban visitors that tend to frequent the Sunday Market with cars.
He said he saw the expansion as an economic engine to help the businesses in his developments.
“What’s happening is the Whole Foods is really sucking the energy for the retailers on our side of the street,” he said. “We have to do something for our businesses to counteract that. One way is on the SoWa Sunday. To get traffic into this neighborhood, there’s no other way to do it. SoWa Sunday has been excellent for that…When we did the Christmas Market, we saw and got a sense from the vendors that Saturday was a very different crowd. Saturday was more urban. Sunday was more suburban…I think being open on Saturday would bring some of those people from other places in the city over here without all the traffic. Sunday attracts a lot of families from the suburbs with cars.”
Jeff Gates of the Aquitaine Group, which has a restaurant in a GTI building at SoWa, said the idea of Saturday would be a tremendous boost to his and other restaurants.
“This has been an amazing move for us (into the South End),” he said, noting that he is a long-term resident. “The Sunday Market has done so much for us on Sunday. It’s brought in the right people, and what I mean by that is it brings safe people, families, and people who are purchasers…I can’t see this neighborhood being in better shape than by having another day of this market.”
That was echoed by Johnna Willis of Boston Chops, who said they have a lively brunch on Sunday because of the Market. However, they had to close down the Saturday brunch due to lack of interest. They hope by adding a Saturday Market, they could bring such things back.
However, others felt it was a big ask.
“I work all week and if I want to run an errand or go food shopping, I’m doing that on Saturday because I can’t when the Market is operating,” said John Connelly, secretary of Old Dover and an abutter to the Market. “I didn’t buy a condo across the street from a festival every weekend on warm days. I think it’s too much to ask to be open on Saturdays too…It’s not fear of the unknown here; it’s fear of the known. If Sundays were handled better, I think Saturday could be a no-brainer.”
Board member Arthur Coe, however, said that expanding the Market is part of keeping the neighborhood vibrant, and avoiding the natural momentum for it to become a resident-only enclave.
“I understand the concerns of the neighbors, but the vibrancy goes away without these businesses in the neighborhood,” he said. “The fabric would go away. These developments would not happen. If we push everything out and it’s just residents, where would we go?…It’s a set number of months that the Market goes on. We can’t be hostage to our cars and make sure we can drive around. That’s like living in Wellesley.”
Another voice in the crowd came from artists, who live and work in and around the GTI buildings. One artist said she started as a SoWa vendor and moved up to having her own store. Now, however, she realizes that 100 percent of her sales last year were on Sunday. Expanding to Saturday would expand her sales, she said.
That uniform call from artists and artisans came as kind of an ‘SOS’ call to neighbors.
“The Sundays are a huge boon and the Saturdays would be as well,” said Hope Ricciardi of United South End Artists. “We’re the last bastion of of arts in the City over here and it’s important to save us all.”
Of course, others felt giving away Saturday could disrupt their peace.
“If we give away Saturday, that day becomes just as crazy as Sunday,” said Member Lewis Wheeler. “Saturday is a quiet day…Once you give something away in your environment, you don’t get it back. Why don’t we wait a couple of years until we see what happens with the Greybar and other developments around us?”
In the end, some residents like Adam Stillman said they like the market, they understood the drawbacks when it comes to congestion, but they wanted to preserve the vibrancy of their neighborhood every day – and expanding the Market seemed to be the way to do that.
“If parking were a lot cheaper or free, that would assuage a lot of concerns,” he said. “I love the Market and I do my shopping there. That’s why I live in the South End. I love having things close by and having things happening.”
In the end, it was those concessions and the pledge from Nicosia that won the trust of many wary residents, propelling the overwhelming vote of confidence.