While a new law expanding the number of alcohol licenses in Boston falls short of comprehensive reform, the measure should give dozens of would-be restaurateurs a much-needed chance to pursue their dreams in underserved neighborhoods. Perhaps more enduringly, the measure also gives the many interest groups that wrestled over the issue during the legislative session a chance to prepare for more far-reaching changes.
The cost of alcohol licenses for bars and restaurants has spiraled upwards in recent years, as a thriving dining culture has bumped up against a state law capping the number of licenses in the city. Recognizing the barrier this creates to entrepreneurship and to the development of neighborhoods outside the downtown core, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley led an effort to get the cap lifted. Legislators wouldn’t go that far this session, not even after Governor Patrick included a change to the state law in his economic development package. But lawmakers did agree to create 25 new licenses a year for the next three years. In a long-overdue change, the legislation also gave Boston’s mayor the power to appoint the city’s Licensing Board, whose members have been chosen by the governor.
The law is an interim step. But it should give a byzantine licensing system — and the many interest groups arrayed around it — a little time to absorb some needed changes, and it sets the stage for additional reforms in the future.
Boston is full of neighborhoods — from East Boston to Dudley Square to Uphams Corner to Ashmont Square — with charming buildings and dense residential development that somehow have never managed to sustain more than a small number of restaurants. That’s partly because, amid a shortage of liquor licenses, big restaurant groups have been buying up licenses from outlying neighborhoods and moving them downtown and to the waterfront. To address this pattern, most of the new licenses are restricted to underserved neighborhoods and designated Main Streets areas. Most of the new licenses are also nontransferable — thereby alleviating concerns that restaurateurs who recently borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy an existing transferable license will see their assets suddenly plunge in value. While the city should in no way guarantee that the price of existing licenses will keep rising, or even remain stable, it’s fair to seek a soft landing.
The Licensing Board now has some important details to figure out: What kind of fees should be attached to the new licenses? How should they be assigned? The board should establish transparent criteria, to make it clear that all applicants will be treated fairly. Eight years ago, efforts to introduce new licenses were met with political intrigue; former state senator Dianne Wilkerson went to jail in such a case. That’s one reason Beacon Hill lawmakers have been leery of delving into liquor licenses again. This year’s reforms offer a first step — an opportunity to get liquor licensing right, and to persuade the hospitality community, aspiring business owners, and the public that alcohol licenses can be created without scandal or neighborhood disruption.