After a week-long spat between North End restaurants and City Hall over outdoor dining in the busy neighborhood, a compromise seems to be near — though not everyone’s on board just yet.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Michelle Wu offered a more flexible version of the fees and regulations the city imposed this month on al fresco dining in the North End. Changes include spreading out the $7,500 seasonal fee over five months — instead of requiring it up front — and allowing reduced fees, based on a restaurant’s location, patio size, and the status of its liquor license. That could help smaller restaurants away from the main thoroughfare on Hanover and Salem Streets manage the cost.
The alterations are a bid, Wu said, to appease all involved in what has flared into a tumultuous debate, weighing commerce against quiet in one of Boston’s most distinctive neighborhoods.
“We can come to a situation this summer where our community members, which includes our residents and our restaurant owners, are all thriving,” Wu said. “This is something that we want to see work all across the city.”
When outdoor dining dramatically expanded last summer, some North End residents complained about noise, trash, and traffic from restaurants. None spoke at the news conference Tuesday, but state Representative Aaron Michlewitz said the addition of outdoor dining altered an already delicate balance in his neighborhood.
“Having over 90 liquor licenses in such a small residential community has always been a challenge, but with outdoor dining it has become particularly daunting for all of us,” he said. “Expanding a restaurant onto a street may not seem like a big deal in other parts of the city, but it’s a big deal in the North End.”
The outdoor dining measures are specific to the North End, the city has said, because of the sheer density of restaurants there, and the impacts they create. There were 77 outdoor patios in the North End last year, compared with 51 in Back Bay and just 14 in the Seaport.
For their part, some restaurant owners said they understand the need to change the program from 2021 and hope to work out a way to keep outdoor dining intact beyond the current three-year pilot program, which was launched in response to the pandemic.
“If we can come together and figure this out this year, we can have this for a longer time, we can have this for the years to come,” said Nick Varano, the owner of Strega, as he stood alongside Wu on Tuesday. “But if we don’t, it’s going to be something that’s lost.”
At least a few of Varano’s peers, however, remain unhappy with the plan.
Even as the news conference was underway on the fifth floor of City Hall, a small but vocal group of residents and restaurant owners chanted and criticized Wu for not speaking with them directly. She asked staff members to close the doors to help with the noise.
”They want to destroy the neighborhood,” said Jorge Mendoza, owner of Vinoteca di Monica. “They want Boston to not be a city of neighborhoods — they want Boston to be a city of corporations.”
In a video shared on Twitter, Mendoza claimed he was being denied entry to the conference, while Varano and another North End restaurateur spoke alongside the mayor.
“We want to be at the meeting,” Mendoza said. “Otherwise, don’t hold the meeting.”
.@MayorWu is holding a press conference on #NorthEnd outdoor dining, but late today made a venue change into a smaller room in city hall, where now city officials aren’t letting certain business owners in citing overcapacity/ the fire code. This is what unfolded next: #wcvb pic.twitter.com/cbzdE4mAiP— Peter Eliopoulos (@petereliopoulos) March 29, 2022
Later in the day, he held a press conference of his own outside Terramia in the North End with a handful of restaurateurs. He targeted Wu, who he said was just bringing trouble to the neighborhood.
“She came over and stirred a gravy here, a Sunday gravy, OK?” he said. “And now we have a mélange of stupidity.”
Carla Agrippino Gomes, owner and general manager of Terramia and Antico Forno, added she did not believe asking North End restaurants to pay an additional fee is right.
“All we are looking for is equity and fairness across all neighborhoods in the city of Boston,” she said. “We want to be treated fairly. We want to be treated the same.”
Last week, a few restaurant owners threatened to sue the city over the new rules. That threat highlighted a week of increasing tension, with restaurants gathering 30,000 signatures on a Change.org online petition opposing the new rules, and Wu on Friday suggesting she might pull the plug altogether on outdoor dining in the North End if an agreement could not be reached.
Things began to cool off on Sunday, when Wu and Michlewitz met with about a dozen North End restaurant owners, the Globe reported. And certain restaurateurs offered ideas of their own: Philip Frattaroli, who owns multiple North End eateries, is rallying restaurants to add a $4 surcharge to every check on an outdoor patio. That, he said, could help offset the city-sanctioned fees.
On Tuesday, Frattaroli suggested that a “silent majority” of restaurateurs are now on board with the adjusted program, and later tweeted a list of restaurants he said are supportive, and those opposed.
Still, some of the rules Wu proposed will stay put.
The mayor did not announce changes to the monthly parking charge that applies to participating North End restaurants, which totals $450 per spot occupied, or the neighborhood’s truncated outdoor season. The North End will be allowed to operate patios from May to September, rather than April to November like the rest of the city.