BOSTON — The market at Boston's historic and spiritual center, steps from where Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty stoked the fires of rebellion and a colony took its first shaky steps toward nationhood, is up for a 21st century face-lift.
Quincy Market, the granite-columned marketplace just behind red-brick Faneuil Hall, is part of one of the world's top tourist destinations, attracting visitors seeking a taste of revolutionary history and a cup of New England clam chowder.
Packed with counter service eateries and pushcart vendors hawking Boston souvenirs to 22 million annual visitors, the Greek Revival market was the inspiration for pedestrian city centers across the country — from New York's South Street Seaport to Baltimore's Inner Harbor — when it was revived in the 1970s.
But after four decades, the market's operator says Quincy Market — along with the two brick buildings along either side that house office space and retail chains — is past due for an overhaul.
And though the plan has broad support, some vendors fear they'll be drummed out by the march of progress.
Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., a New York-based real estate investment firm that has held the ground lease to run the city-owned market since 2011, says it wants to create an "urban oasis" more appealing to residents and companies venturing back into downtown.
Among its early plans are transforming existing office space in the South Market building into a new, 180-room boutique hotel; installing the Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo on the top floor of Quincy Market; and redesigning the building's crowded food court with more open space, sit-down restaurants and, possibly, moveable bars. Along the marketplace's familiar cobblestone paths, the company wants to possibly introduce ping pong tables, shuffleboard and performance spaces for live music and poetry and book readings.
Barry Lustig, Ashkenazy's executive vice president, sees a revived marketplace combining the best features of New York's Bryant Park and the Grand Central Terminal market. "We want to create something more whimsical," he said. "It needs to be a place where people just congregate. Where there's always something to do. Where everyone takes part in celebrating this public realm."
The plan still needs city approval but has generally found support among historic preservationists, urban planners, designers and architects. Many agree the area — and the "festival marketplace" concept it pioneered — could use an update.
"You no longer need to convince people to come to the city," said Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, pointing to the revitalization of old city neighborhoods and the rise of new, mixed-use developments that are drawing a younger generation back to urban centers.
"The festival marketplace was a way to create a destination and a safe place when people didn't want to come to the city. You walked around, did your tourist thing in this sort of Disneyfied environment, and then you left," Leroux said.
Even so, Ashkenazy's plan isn't without detractors. Some city councilors are worried it will go too far while the market's longtime food sellers and pushcart vendors say they face an uncertain future.
Kostas Haralabatos, who has owned Aris BBQ for nearly four decades, said he and others have been operating without long-term leases as the company prepares for the work. "It's pathetic," Haralabatos said. "They could tell us next week or next month to leave. It's no way to run a business."
Pushcart vendors, many of whom sell Boston-themed items and souvenirs from antique-looking carts, fear they'll eventually be priced out as rents steadily increase.
Steven Jenal, whose family operates four spots selling novelty and Boston-themed boxer shorts, socks and pajamas, said the move to more upscale or trendy retailers as the Boston area economy enjoys a renaissance is unfair to the pushcart vendors that weathered the lean years of recession and have been there since the market's rebirth in the 1970s, when it was saved from demolition after years of neglect.
"For us, it's about keeping the marketplace affordable for local small businesses, which is what it was meant for," he said. "We're afraid of being lost in the shuffle."
Out-of-towners seated under the market's domed central pavilion earlier this week said they saw nothing immediately tired or worn about the building or its offerings.
Cristina Espinosa, of Spain, said it offered convenience. "For tourists, it's fine ... It has souvenirs. You have your choice of typical (American) food. It's fast."
Elizabeth Larsson, who was visiting from Sweden with her husband, agreed. "We like it. It's nice. We've been to places where they changed things and they've lost that feeling that this place has."
Most agreed some of the aesthetic changes proposed — updating '70s-era exterior light posts and changing out some of the familiar cobblestone paths to something easier on the feet, for example — were good ideas.
But some wondered if changing the marketplace would really bring back Boston residents.
"If you're a local, you kind of want a place where tourists do their tourist thing and you're sort of removed from that," said Mike Gruber, a Denver resident who noted little had really changed since he last visited the market area more than a decade ago. "I feel like this is that place ... I can only imagine that if I was a local, this would be the last place I'd want to be."