Is the food fight between North End restaurateurs and Mayor Michelle Wu over al fresco dining coming to an end?
It depends on who you ask.
If you attended Wu’s press conference at City Hall on Tuesday, it seems cooler heads have prevailed and the mayor made concessions to appease those unhappy with new fees and restrictions governing patios on public property.
I already imagined myself sipping prosecco on a patio on Hanover Street on one of those unbelievably perfect summer days in Boston.
But an hour later, the cold reality of parochial politics set in. A small group of North End restaurant owners held their own press conference on Salem Street. They still say Wu’s outdoor dining plan is unfair and plan to sue the city over it. My sense is the fight will go on for this faction, which has found allies among antivax protestors who object to Wu’s vaccine mandate for city employees. Some of these same protestors showed up in solidarity with the restaurant owners Tuesday.
It’s embarrassingly absurd.
Given that we’re living through a never-ending pandemic and the beginning of another Cold War, this is what some people in Boston are raging about?
Both sides should be able to come up with a resolution that doesn’t involve the hiring of high-priced lawyers or the expenditure of precious political capital. Come on, this is not an intractable problem like ending homelessness or closing the racial wealth gap. This is about being able to enjoy a bowl of bolognese or sip limoncello on the side of a street.
We can figure this out.
And I think we’re there, despite what I suspect will be lingering and loud objections from a small faction of restaurateurs.
Both sides appeared far apart on Friday when a frustrated Wu signaled that she would cancel the outdoor dining season in the North End if a critical mass of restaurants couldn’t agree to new rules. Then detente broke out when Wu ― along with political ally Representative Aaron Michlewitz who lives in the North End ― met with about a dozen restaurant owners at City Hall on Sunday.
After two hours, they found common ground. Wu made changes to the program, which she announced at her press conference Tuesday. Among them: allowing restaurants to pay a new $7,500 outdoor patio fee in monthly installments instead of upfront, and giving restaurants that can’t afford the fee the option of applying for a hardship waiver.
“We’re trying to make the residents and all the stakeholders happy. We want to do right by them,” said Philip Frattaroli, managing partner of Filmark Hospitality Group, which owns several North End restaurants, including Ristorante Lucia. “A good restaurant has to be a good neighbor,” said Frattaoli, who attended the Sunday confab.
North End proprietors have been upset because they feel singled out, as my Globe colleague Diti Kohli has reported. Restaurants that use public property under the the city’s permanent outdoor dining program pay fees, but not those participating in a three-year pilot the Walsh administration launched so more restaurants could operate patios to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic.
North End owners are the only ones in the pilot that have to pay a $7,500 fee, plus an additional $458 monthly parking charge for each street space occupied by tables. North End restaurants also can’t start their outdoor season until May ― it’s April everywhere else ― and will need to pack up the outdoor furniture sooner than other neighborhoods.
On the face of it, it may seem exorbitant and unfair, but the cost of offsetting the negative impact on North End is far greater than in other parts of Boston.
For example, with so many restaurants taking over Hanover Street, the city wants to make a section of it one-way from May to September. That means the city might need to hire police details to deal with congestion. Someone has to pay for the OT.
To further ease the economic pain of the new fees, Frattaroli is among a group of North End restaurant owners pushing a good idea: Add a $4 surcharge to every check on an outdoor patio.
His rationale: Nightclubs and airlines charge for premium seating. Why shouldn’t restaurants do the same for the chance to sit outside in the fresh air under umbrellas surrounded by flower-filled planters and twinkling lights after dark?
“Pretty much everything has fees now,” said Frattaroli. “We’re going to try to get everybody on board with it so we’re unified as a restaurant community.”
Of course, the brouhaha isn’t just about money. It’s not often you see a group of business owners challenge the mayor publicly. I can’t imagine this happening to Marty Walsh. Wu is our first woman, first person of color, and first millennial elected as mayor. She’s being tested by the old guard.
What we’ve learned so far is that she doesn’t like to fail a test. Wu will continue to stand up for residents in a district she won easily in November.
Wu is not the enemy. She’s responding to residents who in public meetings have been unequivocal in voicing their concerns: Between overcrowded streets and scarce parking, the proliferation of outdoor dining has made life miserable.
Unlike many other parts of the city, space is so tight in the North End that restaurants have to take over city streets to set up tables and chairs.
Wu, perhaps more than most people, understands the quality of life issues at stake. She used to live in this Italian enclave.
No one should expect the quiet of the suburbs, but residents didn’t sign up for this: According to the city, the North End had 70 restaurant patios on public property last year, more than three times the number of the next-highest neighborhood. It also eliminated the most parking spots, and generated the most complaints related to noise, congestion, rodents, and dirty streets because of outdoor dining.
Some restaurants have been able to double their capacity in balmy weather, which bodes well for a lucrative summer season, barring the rise of a new COVID variant. By that measure, the fees the North End is being asked to fork over are a small price to pay.
North End restaurant owners should remember the pilot program that created one of the city’s best al fresco experiences only continues next year if Wu says so. It is restaurant owners who face a big test this spring and summer. They must prove to the mayor that patios and residents can coexist.
Time is running out for lawsuits or even another revamping of the rules. The goal of everyone involved should be ensuring that patio season opens before the weather turns nice and tourist dollars start flowing.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.