For three summers, the narrow streets of the North End bustled with diners seated outside many of its nearly 100 restaurants.
This year, expect a lot less bustle.
The Wu administration on Thursday released new outdoor dining rules for neighborhoods across the city that include a sharp cutback in allowable al fresco areas in the famed Italian enclave.
Restaurants in most of Boston will be allowed to set up tables starting May 1 on adjacent sidewalks and in parking spaces after submitting engineering plans and paying a fee. But North End eateries will be limited to sidewalks, and only those of “adequate” width. The required width will be 5 feet between the edge of the patio and the road in low traffic areas, and 8 feet in high traffic areas.
North End restaurateurs said the restrictions could substantially reduce outdoor seating for many establishments.
The announcement is likely to stir controversy for Mayor Michelle Wu, who is already known for her rocky relationship with local business leaders.
City officials said the change was a response to concerns by residents over noise, crowding, and the loss of precious parking in the historic neighborhood. And it comes amid construction of the North Washington Bridge and the upcoming summer closure of the Sumner Tunnel, which they said could push even more traffic to North End streets.
The move would help restore quality of life in the neighborhood for the 2023 season, said Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion. A solution for 2024 and beyond will be mapped out by city officials and a task force of residents and restaurants in the coming months.
“Whatever scenario we developed for on-street dining, it would be next to impossible to execute,” he said. “Therefore . . . we have decided this year to forgo on-street outdoor dining.”
Indeed, a meeting at a North End church Thursday night to roll out the program quickly turned boisterous.
“It’s not a fair playing field,” said Nick Verano, owner of Strega on Hanover Street. “There could have been more thought and effort in this announcement.”
Frank DePasquale, who owns several North End restaurants, agreed.
“It’s upsetting for us to be discriminated against,” he said. “It’s a flaw to Italians. It’s a flaw to the North End. . . . It’s about time we all come together, and give a little, and take a little.”
Some North End owners tussled with Wu last year after she required restaurants in the neighborhood — but nowhere else — to pay a $7,500 seasonal fee to put tables outside. City officials eventually spread the charge over five months and allowed reduced fees in select cases, based on a restaurant’s location, patio size, and the status of its liquor license. (The $794,000 collected by the end of August went toward cleaning services and traffic accommodations.)
Yet last summer’s back-and-forth did little to satisfy restaurateurs or worried residents. Four business owners sued Wu in an attempt to recoup the outdoor dining fees, which they called unconstitutional, and held angry press conferences. Neighbors still complained that the streets remained crowded and dirty, despite the city’s efforts.
Some residents at the meeting seemed pleased by the new rules. Darlene Romano thanked the city for the change.
“COVID’s done,” she said. “The restaurants did well before. They’ll do well after. We are a neighborhood, not a district where you go out and dance all night. We want to shop at the CVS and go to the bank without all the outdoor dining.”
In the rest of the city, the new rules are a bid to simply clarify what’s allowed — and where. Restaurants that wish to participate will have to submit professional site plans and pay a $199 or $399 fee each month, depending on whether or not they have a liquor license.
The money will go toward hiring architects to draft site plans for restaurants that would like to have outdoor dining but would otherwise not be able to participate, according to a city statement.
It’s a step-up in regulation from the past three years, when the city ran a pandemic-era pilot program with lax rules that let most restaurants go al fresco easily and for free. Only in 2022 did the city release a packet of regulations that required mandatory automobile and workers’ compensation insurance and concrete jersey or water-filled barriers around tables to protect diners from traffic. (North End restaurants that purchased barriers they now can’t use will be reimbursed, the city said.)
Restaurant owners lauded outdoor dining as a saving grace during the slower months of the pandemic. Then-mayor Martin J. Walsh debuted the program in 2020 when capacity restrictions limited indoor service. Some restaurants saw revenue surge as their overall capacity grew significantly and diners flocked to outdoor seating.
Christopher Glionna, owner of Aquitaine and Metropolis in the South End, said the new city guidelines do not ask too much of restaurants. His two businesses were able to add dozens of seats each because of the public space program.
“The site plans are reasonable and appropriate,” Glionna said. “And a small fee is reasonable and appropriate.”
David Doyle, owner of Tres Gatos and Casa Verde in Jamaica Plain, said in January that eliminating that rule has been a boon for the food scene and a success with customers. More than 300 restaurants participated in the program in summer 2022.
“The flowering of patios in all corners of the city was one of the true silver linings of the pandemic,” he added.