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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Seaport Farmers' Market is open, to huge crowds

New operation in Keith's Brewery building struggles

Posted By on Sat, Aug 7, 2010 at 12:57 PM

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Tens of thousands of people made their way to Pier 22 this morning to check out the new Seaport Farmers' Market. I was there from about 9:30 to 10:00, and was overwhelmed by the crowds. Still, when I left it appeared that plenty more people were heading to the market: the sidewalks were jammed pack, and cars were backing up four or five blocks on Water Street. More on those cars in a bit.

First, though, some pictures, to give an indication of the size of the crowd:

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The layout of the market is sensible, with wide aisles and stairways to the second level (there's also an elevator), and plenty of room for the vendors. It appears that the spaces are fully leased. There's an openness to the market, with very high warehouse ceilings with exposed heating ducts, that is fresh and clean.

Construction is still going on, so some areas in the building are off limits, including the green roof. That might also be why the deck along the waterfront is not being utilized---this would make a great location for tables and chairs, a place for people to eat. I'm really looking forward to seeing how these features reveal themselves.

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The water frontage is without question the most valuable part of market, architecturally speaking, and provides a striking backdrop for shopping.
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There is also an interesting green wall. I don't know if this provides any real environmental benefit, or is just something cool to look at. Either way, it's a worthwhile addition to the building.
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Now the downsides. First, for a crowd of this size, the washrooms are woefully undersized. There are three stalls and four urinals in the men's room, and there's not a family room, so my visit was interrupted with a father bringing his young daughter pass the men at the urinals. Perhaps the size of the crowds will settle down, and this will be less of an issue.

I was also disappointed to come across just one musician inside the building, and a second on the walkway leading in. There was ample space for musicians, especially upstairs, and I'm hoping that this issue will be addressed quickly. Maybe they were all at the buskers fair?

The biggest downside, though, is the street side. I realize this is an old warehouse, and there was going to need to be space for delivery trucks and handicapped parking, but it's really unfortunate that the entire frontage of the building is a parking lot. I would've liked to have seen broad stretches of green extending out to the road, with picnic tables, play equipment, maybe a small stage or two for those musicians. There's certainly a demand for it---today, lots of people were cramming themselves into a metre-wide strip of grass between parking areas.

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Not that parking isn't needed, but there are lots nearby---today, people directing traffic were funnelling cars into the Westin lot, which must surely be a one-day arrangement, but there's also the expansive Cunard lots, and others around Pier 21. Were I to drive (but why would I?) I would've parked up on Barrington or beyond and walked down, to avoid the clogged streets, but hundreds, if not thousands, of drivers (most one to a car) thought they could drive right up to the front door of the market.

Parking is one of those delusional issues---it literally makes people temporarily insane. I would've liked the farmers' market to address it head-on; instead, they've created a crazed driver-innocent pedestrian interface into the future.

Relatedly, the absolute biggest FAIL of the market is that there are no bike racks whatsoever, and as a result hundreds of bikes locked to fences, trees and anything else that would suffice.

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A reader tells me that bike racks have arrived, but haven't yet been installed, but this still strikes me as a major screwup. The racks should've been ordered in time for opening, and they should've been placed in the parking lot, where cars are now.

It's possible the front of the building will be cleaned up considerably---right now there's a construction fence blocking most of it. It should be made much, much more welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists, and much less so to cars. For the present, it's a huge mess.

Those issues aside, it's more than obvious that people are enthusiastically welcoming the Seaport Market. This is good, in and of itself, but also because the project came in significantly over budget, and is reportedly being financed through a loan with 16 percent annual interest charges. If even a quarter of today's crowd comes every week to the market, there won't be any question about it surviving financially.

Halifax Historic Market

After leaving the Seaport Market, I walked over to the Keith's Brewery building and checked out the new farmers' market that is attempting to make a run of it in the old space.

As I understand it, part of the schism in the Halifax Farmers' Market was caused because the Port of Halifax, on whose land Seaport sits, insisted that the Seaport Market be open at least three days a week. (I've been playing phone tag with the port this week to get the full story, and as soon as I do, I'll post it here.) But three days a week was simply too much for many of the smaller farm operations and crafts people, who would have to hire someone to either pick or to work the market. These sellers opted instead to stay where they are.

I thought there would be considerable customer loyalty to these farmers, especially on the first day of operation---and certainly many people said they'd go to both markets, and would support both markets into the future. But, evidently, there aren't significant numbers of such people. The brewery building was woefully, almost frighteningly, depopulated. Press releases had bragged of "90+" vendors signing up the venture, but there were certainly not that many present today. I didn't count them, but I'd be surprised if it was half that number. Customer numbers were likewise alarmingly small.

Compare the pictures below to the pictures I took last week, and you'll understand just how bleak the prospect of success looks.

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I don't know---maybe this too will work itself out as the lure of the shiny new Seaport Market fades a bit. But the Halifax Historic Market operation, and those who support it, have to do something big, and quickly so, if they're going to make it work.

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