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North End restaurants, Wu trade shots over outdoor dining fee

Hours after restaurant owners threatened a lawsuit, the mayor signaled she could cancel outdoor dining in the North End entirely.

Pedestrians walks past Modern Pastry on a sidewalk along outdoor dining areas in the North End, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, when patios were set up around the neighborhood.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Mayor Michelle Wu signaled late Friday that she would be willing to pull the plug on summertime outdoor dining in the North End, if restaurants there find new restrictions to the program “unworkable.”

If a “critical mass of restaurants” cannot reach an agreement with the city, “I am prepared to rescind North End outdoor dining before the start of this season,” she wrote in a letter sent to the Globe.

Her note came just hours after a group of North End restaurateurs announced that they will pursue legal action against the City of Boston if the current rules stand.

At issue is a $7,500 fee and additional monthly parking charges that the Wu administration said earlier this month it will require of North End eateries that open patios this season. The measures arose from complaints from neighborhood residents about overcrowding and trash last summer. The fee is the same regardless of restaurant size or revenue, and only applies in the North End, which restaurant owners there argue is “discriminatory.”

On Friday, the owners of Monica’s Trattoria and Bova’s Bakery said they’ve retained legal counsel to challenge the rules, though they declined to name the firm. Frank Mendoza, the co-owner of Monica’s Trattoria, said he wants to file a lawsuit by April 1, the day the outdoor dining season begins in most of Boston.

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“This is an unjustified mandate,” Mendoza said in an impromptu press conference Friday afternoon outside his restaurant on the corner of Prince and Salem streets. “And we won’t just sit around and take it.”

Roughly 60 restaurants gathered on a Zoom call on Friday with an attorney to “weigh their options,” too, Terramia and Antico Forno owner Carla Agrippino-Gomes added in a phone interview. It is unclear how many eateries are formally involved in the litigation.

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Mendoza said he also wants the city to extend the length of the outdoor dining season. Currently, North End restaurants can open from May 1 to September if they apply (and pay up) by April 10. In other neighborhoods, eateries can open outdoors from April 1 to Nov. 31.

More than 8,000 people have signed a Change.org petition created Thursday that says the regulations unfairly target the North End.

“It will make it impossible for these small businesses to compete with the rest of Boston’s restaurants,” the description reads. “The smallest, hardworking, mom-and-pop restaurants which help keep the North End neighborhood authentic and thriving cannot endure these fees.”

Wu enacted the rules to appease residents who have complained of congestion, parking, and trash issues created by patios since 2021, a year after the pandemic-era program launched. City officials claim that the $7,500 fee will cover the costs of cleaning, trash pickup, and lost residential parking spots caused by outdoor dining. But restaurants contend that they handle most of these expenses themselves.

In addition, the city said the fees apply only to the North End because of the density of eateries in the tightly-packed neighborhood. While other neighborhoods have outdoor dining, there are more restaurants per capita in the North End than anywhere else in Boston, according to city data.

There were 77 restaurants that opened outdoor patios — 70 on public property — in the tiny neighborhood last summer, in some cases doubling their seating capacity, Wu wrote in her letter. Back Bay, by comparison, had 51 patios with 21 of them on the street. There were also 14 in the Seaport, seven in Roxbury, six in Charlestown, and one patio in Chinatown.

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In her letter Friday evening, Wu cited “deep opposition” from North Enders “at their wit’s end after two seasons of unprecedented intrusion on neighborhood life,” and framed her new rules as an effort to find middle ground between residents and restaurants.

If that compromise on the sidewalk seating is not acceptable, she suggested, perhaps people can just eat inside.


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.