It’s a tale as old as 2021.
The North End is — once again — embroiled in controversy over summertime outdoor dining regulations and the fate of its streets and sidewalks. So much so that restaurateurs began organizing Wednesday to fight the $7,500 fee Boston says it will impose on neighborhood eateries participating in the al fresco program.
“‘We the people,’ of ‘The North End Restaurant Community,’ are shocked and dismayed by the harsh requirements, exorbitant fees, and obvious discrimination being imposed on us by Mayor Michelle Wu and the City of Boston,” read a letter to the mayor that restaurant owners are circulating. Some are threatening to sue.
The city announced the measure last week amid worries from residents who say the outdoor tables, often set up in parking spaces, bring unwanted congestion and quality-of-life concerns to the North End. If maintained, the plan would cost restaurants the four-figure flat fee, as well as a $458-per-month parking charge for each spot occupied by tables, restaurateurs say. (Participating restaurants will pay for at least two spots.)
North End eateries also cannot start outdoor dining until May 1 and must wrap up by September, two months less than what is allowed in the rest of the city.
Now, North End restaurateurs are arguing that the policy targets them unfairly, while giving eateries in the South End or Back Bay, for example, a leg up. Dozens of business owners gathered in a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon at Filippo Ristorante and then sent the note to Wu, requesting that the city drop the fees and extend their outdoor dining season.
Jen Royle, the chef-owner of Table, said the group left the meeting feeling united and ready to oppose the measure. She estimates that between the fee, insurance, and road barriers, the policy would cost her around $20,000 this year.
“We just want what’s right and what’s fair,” she said. “That’s all.”
Many restaurateurs also question where the fee money will go, said Carla Agrippino-Gomes, owner of Terramia and Antico Forno.
City officials say the funds will cover the costs of trash pickup and lost residential parking spots caused by outdoor dining. And they suggested the fees were specific to the North End in large part because of the density of eateries on its tightly packed and narrow streets.
“Outdoor dining had unique impacts on the street cleanliness, walkability, accessibility for people with wheelchairs and other mobility devices, trash and rodent activity due to the size of the neighborhood and its high concentration of restaurants,” a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to the Globe Thursday. “The funds raised by this fee will help mitigate these impacts.”
The North End has just under 11,000 residents, according to census data. And in 2021, the city said, the neighborhood had a restaurant with outdoor dining for every 154 of them. Downtown, with roughly 13,000 residents, had the second-highest density with a restaurant with outdoor dining for every 216 residents, followed by Back Bay — population 20,000 — with one for every 529 residents.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, of the North End, also said that Boston intends to create a committee — possibly including restaurateurs, residents, and elected officials — that would sort out how to best use the money.
But Agrippino-Gomes said eateries have always handled their own trash, clean-up, and power washing.
“That’s already done. That’s already paid for by restaurants and property taxes,” she added. “So why is the blame being put on us?”
North End residents have come out in force to oppose outdoor dining, too. Public meetings — in February and then again in early March — were well-attended by upset neighbors. It mirrored the situation in July, when people first complained of clogged sidewalks and crowds on already-narrow streets.
This year, outdoor seating will have to close a half-hour earlier citywide this year, at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Hanover Street, the North End’s main thoroughfare, will also operate one-way from Richmond Street to Cross Street from May to September.
North End restaurateurs have until April 10 to pay the fee and apply to participate to the program.
Jodi Piazza, a lifelong North End resident, called the situation last summer “a nightmare.”
Her elderly mother experienced a medical episode on Hanover Street and called an ambulance, which had a difficult time cramming through the traffic. Piazza said she is not opposed to outdoor dining.
“But it needs to be refined,” she said. “The restaurants — what they want is a privilege, not a right.”