Good news, Boston:
Last week, at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley filed a home rule petition to create 153 new liquor licenses.
That’s a really big deal.
Whether you’re born and raised, new to town, just passing through, or a transplant who’s been in the restaurant industry here for years (hi, friends), you know the city has a tortured relationship with liquor licenses.
Since the repeal of Prohibition, the number of licenses available in Boston has been limited by the state, not growing each year with the city’s population, not increasing with local demand, and hardly budging in spite of cries and pleas from aspiring bar owners and restaurateurs.
Because of an arbitrary cap placed by the state exclusively on Boston (Somerville and Cambridge don’t have this mess to contend with, nor does any other town or city) 85 years ago, opening a restaurant in Boston city limits that serves alcohol has notoriously cost an extra $350,000, roughly the going market price of a license.
And that’s if someone is selling. News recently broke that Sonny Walker’s, a Roxbury bar in business for nearly 40 years, will serve its last drink April 1 and sold its license to the national steakhouse Del Frisco’s, which the Boston Globe reports “plans to open [its second Boston] restaurant on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.”
Things got better, sort of, a little bit, in 2006, and then in a big way in 2014, when Pressley pushed a home rule petition through the state legislature that, as her city profile highlights, “[returned] control of the Licensing Board to the City for the first time in more than 100 years and [provided] 75 new licenses to the City over three years, with 80% of those licenses restricted to the neighborhoods most in need.”
Last week’s legislation builds on that momentum. The vast majority of those 153 licenses will be restricted to seven historically underserved Boston neighborhoods: Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and East Boston. The petition also proposes a new classification of license called “umbrella licenses” that operate like the license at Logan Airport, where all restaurant operators in the airport fall under the single license.
“Restaurants are the glue for thriving, healthy neighborhoods,” Pressley said in a statement. “I am encouraged, but not yet satisfied by the success of the 2014 legislation that created 75 new liquor licenses for the City of Boston, which helped dozens of new restaurants open and created hundreds of new jobs. It is clear that the city still sees disparities in walkable, sit down amenities, but this home rule, in partnership with Mayor Walsh and the Massachusetts Legislature, is a step towards creating an ecosystem that allows neighborhoods to grow at their own pace.”
If you still have questions about how this came to be, or about how these licenses have been parsed up to now, I suggest reading my two-part series on the matter, “The Thirsty Games.” Otherwise, here are the nitty gritty answers to the biggest questions that this legislation poses, straight from Pressley’s office:
What does this legislation do?
Over the course of 3 years, this legislation creates 153 new non-transferable liquor licenses for the City of Boston. It also creates a new classification of licenses called “umbrella licenses” that will allow larger developments to apply for a license that will apply to their entire footprint.
What is the breakdown of the 153 licenses?
105 licenses will be created over 3 years for the 7 neighborhoods named in the 2014 Liquor License Reform legislation (Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill and Roxbury). The breakdown will be 3 all alcohol and 2 beer and wine licenses per neighborhood, per year, for 3 years (15 per neighborhood).
15 licenses will be created for Main Street Districts as defined by their geographic boundaries by the Office of Business Development in the City of Boston. The breakdown will be 3 all alcohol and 2 beer and wine per year for all the Main Street Districts in Boston and they will pull from the same pool of licenses, per year (15 for all Main Streets)
30 licenses will be all-city licenses, meaning they can be issued anywhere within the geographic boundaries of the City of Boston. The breakdown will be 7 all alcohol and 3 beer and wine for the entire city per year (10 all city) NOTE: Back Bay, Beacon Hill and the North End cannot be issued more than 3 per year, per neighborhood.
3 specific licenses will be created for Lawn on D, the Boston Center for the Arts and the Bruce C. Bolling Building, respectfully.
Both have been applying for 1 day licenses to support their programming and add civic value by having licenses dedicated to their location. These will not be transferable to any other business (3 total)
What are Umbrella Licenses?
Umbrella Licenses are a new classification created in the legislation. There are specific definitions for developments that qualify to apply for these licenses. They include being a development that exceeds 700,000 square feet gross floor area and are under common ownership.
Developments that qualify will apply under the same process as other licensees, and if awarded will allow operators hoping to open inside the development to apply to the Boston Licensing Board to be allowed to serve alcohol under the umbrella license without requiring a stand-alone license.
For an example, currently Logan Airport operates under a similar structure, whereby Logan Airport has one license and businesses wishing to operate at the airport apply with the City of Boston Licensing Board to be allowed to serve alcohol, but do not use a license under the state imposed cap, or East Boston neighborhood restricted licenses.
When a business ceases to operate in the airport, any new operator must apply for the ability to serve alcohol and the new operator cannot transfer a license from the operator closing their business. There is a $150,000 fee for an umbrella license.
How is this different than 2014 legislation?
The two most striking differences are the eligibility requirements for the neighborhood restricted licenses and the creation of umbrella licenses.
Under the 2014 legislation, each neighborhood had equal access to the neighborhood restricted licenses, an operator in any of the 7 neighborhoods (Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, Mission Hill and East Boston) or a city recognized Main Street District could apply and if public need was proven, could be issued license. There was no priority by neighborhood or distinction within the legislation.
In the 2018 legislation, each neighborhood will be given their own independent number of licenses that can only be issued within the boundaries of that neighborhood. This legislation would create 15 new Mattapan licenses over three years that will be available whenever a restauranteur is ready to open there, as an example.
This legislation also creates a 1-year cool off period for any liquor license operator who sells their transferable license, barring them from applying for a non-transferable restricted license for the same location.
Why these neighborhoods?
The original intent of the 2014 legislation was to reduce disparities in neighborhood sit down restaurants around the city, and while it was a good step forward, there remains more work to be done. These neighborhoods can still benefit from additional sit down restaurants, and this legislation protects the listed neighborhoods from competing with each other for licenses.
Are these the only neighborhoods?
Not necessarily. While there are Main Street Districts and city wide licenses, we want to hear from community and their elected official delegations about opportunities to add additional neighborhoods.
What about downtown neighborhoods who do not want more?
There is a provision of the legislation that does not allow more than 3 of the all city licenses to go to the North End, Back Bay or Beacon Hill as residents have raised concerns of over saturation of licenses on those communities.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.