Some call it a retail area. Others a strip mall.
To Tom Cifrino, it is the "Fields Station Shopping Center," and for him, it's a family legacy, a Dorchester business begun by his father and uncle almost a century ago.
When the Cifrinos opened the Uphams Corner Market in 1915, it came to be considered the country's first "supermarket." Brothers John and Paul Cifrino presided over the Columbia Road business, eventually growing it into a small grocery chain, the Supreme Markets, a real city market with several stores in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roslindale
In 1962, Paul Cifrino purchased land adjacent to Fields Corner station that had served as a car barn for the city's public transit authority (now called the MBTA) and he developed a retail shopping center with nine tenants and a 300-car parking lot.
"It was a 100,000 square foot shopping center that nobody had seen in the inner city in years," Tom Cifrino said in an interview last week. Original tenants included a branch office of State Street Bank & Trust, a James H. McManus Ice Cream Parlor, a Hallmark card shop, among others. The first anchor tenants were a 20,000 state-of-the-art Supreme Market, and a 40,000 square foot Bradlee's department store.
Its popularity grew as residents from the surrounding neighborhoods flocked to the stores. In high school, Tom Cifrino himself found work at his uncle's supermarket: "I started at 16 as a bundle boy at the Supreme, and the parking lot was always two thirds filled," he recalled.
But over the years substantial changes came. The Supreme Market was sold to a new operator, the Purity-Supreme chain, and that eventually was sold to the Stop and Shop Company. The adjacent Bradlee's was purchased by Stop & Shop and when that store went belly-up in 2001, Stop & Shop still controlled the lease for both the market and the department store, some 60 percent of the retail space.
In 2003, Paul Cifrino gave ownership of the property to family and friends, operating under the name of Fields Station LLC. "My uncle Paul gifted 67 shares of ownership to 67 different people, and he made me manager," Tom Cifrino said. He became the managing partner, and says "I have to decide what happens to it."
"Five years ago, when I took over, I said we haven't done anything with the shopping center. Paul ran it over the years, but all the tenants were triple-net tenants. The supermarket had the responsibility to maintain the grounds. The market and Bradlee's were paying $2 a foot. It wasn't great rent but it enabled him to pay the mortgage."
Complicating things for the new ownership was that Stop & Shop had sold their lease rights to other parties and the new owners had little control over them.
"Five years ago when we sat down to take a look at it, we had a horrible supermarket, we had a bad tenant we inherited from Stop & Shop/Bradlee's, It was a fly-by-night, bottom feeder-type retailer and all these other stores. We decided we had to get rid of the bad tenants.
"When the lease ran out a year-and-a-half ago, I had the sense that BD's and the market were bringing down the whole shopping center. I had the feeling the center would dissolve if we didn't re-tenant it. It was in dire straits because we did not have a good tenant." Cifrino says the most important thing needed in a shopping center is "a good [anchor] tenant [who] makes people in the neighborhood come in to shop. If you don't have your major anchor tenants being properly run."
Now, some five years and $3 million of investment later, Cifrino says he is pleased with the changes. "We completely rewired the lighting system, put in new light poles, and bases, and put in all new landscaping, with trees and bushes at the end of each island. The BRA asked us to put in all new lights that match the lights on the street, and we took out the entire guardrail around the shopping center. The neighborhood civic group asked us to replace it with a wrought iron fence, and we agreed to do that," Cifrino said. "I didn't want to do it, because it was extremely expensive. Including the improvements inside, I think we spent $3 million over 4 or 5 years. "There are two national tenants, Family Dollar and AJ Wright, and they are going to be great tenants. The AJ Wright store has been so successful, they want to get bigger in the area. It is one of the best stores they have ever opened in both volume and in profit.
Now, Cifrino says he can see the uptick in volume at the stores. Five years ago, the center's liquor store counted about 5000 customers a week.
"Today it's 6200, all in the past year or so," he says. "I think it has increased because the shopping center is so much more attractive. It's got better tenants in there. People actually want to come in and visit."
John Gallagher, who runs an insurance business on Dorchester Avenue, agrees that there has been a marked improvement.
"I have been impressed by the work they have done there. They have done a nice job," Gallagher says. "I believe they have made a genuine effort to listen to the community and I would say it goes without saying that it's an improvement. And with the [nearby] work at H. Levenbaum, things look much better [in Fields Corner]."
For Cifrino, it remains a matter of pride and family heritage: "It's a great neighborhood. My mother grew up here in Fields Corner, she was born in the house on Adams Street next to St. Ambrose Church. It's been a real fun project to do, and I am really proud of what we have done here. We have been offered a lot of money to sell that shopping center.
"We could have made a lot of money, but we chose not to, we chose to stay here."