The chairman of Reading Terminal Market's board of directors, Ricardo Dunston, a key player in the market's battle with cheesesteak vendor Rick Olivieri, has decided to step down.

Dunston announced his resignation, effective Jan. 31, at the board's meeting Wednesday, said Paul Steinke, the market's general manager.

"I think it's generally that he's been doing this for six-and-a-half years and it's time to turn over the reins," Steinke said of Dunston's departure.

Dunston, who has managed the Shops at Liberty Place, the Gallery and Philadelphia International Airport concessions, was elected chairman by the six-member, private, nonprofit board in 2002.

Customer counts have risen and vacancy rates have remained consistently low during Dunston's tenure, Steinke said. But the heat was on for more than a year when, in 2007, the board decided not to renew the lease for Rick's Steaks, a staple at the market for a quarter-century.

Olivieri, owner of Rick's Steaks, allegedly didn't like the terms for new leases, including causes that Dunston championed including longer, consistent hours, merchant reporting of sales to management and higher rents for prepared-food vendors with accompanying rent relief for grocers and food stands.

Beginning in summer 2007, Olivieri and the market board fought in and out of court until Olivieri flipped his final Reading Terminal steak Oct. 29.

City Councilman Bill Green, a friend of Olivieri's, said that Dunston had wanted to make "big changes" in the market and that he became a controversial figure among merchants as a result.

"He tried to drive through a lot of changes that the merchants weren't happy with and didn't do it in a collaborative manner," Green said. "I think [his resignation] is frankly a good thing for the market and gets us past a lot of the ugliness that happened there last year."

But even Green, an outspoken Olivieri supporter during the Rick's Steaks battle, said that Dunston helped make the market "extraordinarily successful in terms of the revenue they're bringing in."

The board began talks Wednesday on a process to identify Dunston's replacement, Steinke said.

Dunston could not be reached for comment yesterday.