The city’s $4 million plan to draw fresh food vendors and foot traffic back to City Market would sound great—if
we hadn’t seen similar plans come and go before.
The most recent attempt to return the market to its fresh-food roots, just three years ago, backfired when disruptions caused by the $2.7 million renovation drove several existing tenants out of the market—or out of business.
Opened in 1886, the market and Tomlinson Hall, which flanked the market on the west before its demolition in 1958, were once a destination for fresh meat and produce and a true center of commerce for the entire city.
Attempts in the final decades of the 20th century to return the market to prominence, including a major renovation in the 1970s that added contemporary east and west wings to the main building, caused temporary spikes in occupancy and foot traffic but didn’t prevent the market from morphing into nothing more than a lunch-time food court for downtown workers.
As businesses and customers have disappeared, the city, which funds about one-third of the market’s $1 million budget, has gotten further from its goal of making the facility self-sustaining.
The newest plan, announced by Mayor Ballard June 4, will include a new heating and cooling system, new rest rooms and elevators in the main hall, reconfigured vendor spaces, improved lighting and a brighter color palette. Most of the funds will come from a tax-increment financing district. While it seems ominously similar to earlier efforts at a market revival, there are components of the new plan that might result in a better outcome.
For starters, the market’s footprint will be reduced. The east and west wings, which are poorly insulated and hard to heat and cool, will no longer house vendors. Up to six of them will be moved from the wings into the main hall. The east wing will then be converted to accommodate bike commuters with showers, lockers and bike storage. The west wing will be demolished in the fall and the site will be converted into a lawn until a new development, possibly a performing arts venue, is built there.
The vendor spaces that remain in the main hall will be smaller and more efficient, said Jim Reilly, the market’s executive director in the 1990s, who returned to that position in October 2008 after eight years in the private sector.
A smaller, more efficient market bodes well for its future. As does the addition of a regular entertainment schedule, a year-round version of the popular farmer’s market held every Wednesday, and a bar in the market’s mezzanine that will sell beer from local microbrewers.
The market’s best hope for long-term success is the continued repopulation of downtown, including redevelopment of the long-vacant Market Square Arena site. In the meantime, the ability of the bicycle hub and whatever replaces the west wing to draw people in will likely determine whether the city can deliver on the market’s long-promised resurrection.•
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