Second in a series
IF EVER there was a consumer-oriented business that could stay open all night without disturbing anybody, it was the Boston Sports Club on Boylston Street in the Back Bay. The gym is located in the basement of an office building, well out of earshot of the genteel brownstones of Commonwealth Avenue. So when the gym's owners sought permission in 2006 to operate around the clock, most people saw the proposal as an amenity for late-night workers at the John Hancock Tower and other nearby buildings, not as something that would attract rowdies or turn Back Bay into a red-light district.
The proposal had the support of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the business-oriented Back Bay Association, and even a letter of non-objection from the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. Yet the proposal fell short before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals. Robert Shortsleeve, the chairman of the board, couldn't recall the circumstances, but noted that some proposals fail when board members can't see the need.
Yet just because a need doesn't register with the board of appeals — a seven-member group appointed by the mayor — or with the city's elected leadership doesn't mean it doesn't exist. When stores and restaurants shut down at night, life gets difficult for people who work long hours, or odd hours. Among the pillars of Boston's economy are institutions where 9-to-5 hours are rare — hospitals with overnight shifts; financial firms whose employees make deals in faraway time zones; and law firms whose billable-hour requirements keep attorneys at their desks deep into the night. Boston's recent play for more tech firms, which abound with entrepreneurs who work late, only adds to the need for spots to shop, exercise, and get a bite to eat after 11 p.m.
It's time for the city to rethink its broad resistance to late-night commerce. A compelling public-safety case can be made for amending state law to stagger bar closings so that all the crowds don't spill out onto the streets at 2 a.m., the current closing time. But even without that change, the mayor and other Boston officials should be open to allowing more late-night hours for other businesses.
Neighborhood activists are understandably wary of late-night noise and activity. Exacerbating the problem, the gaps in the city's transportation network become all too apparent after midnight. Yet there are ways to keep Boston open later without first reinventing the MBTA — and without hurting anyone's quality of life. The city needs to pursue them. In a 24-hour economy, a dismissive civic attitude toward late-night commerce looks less like a quality-of-life choice than an economic hindrance.
Other communities see the value in round-the-clock gyms, which exist not just in New York and Los Angeles, but in Austin, Seattle, Charlotte, and Raleigh — mid-sized cities with which Boston is often thought to compete. There are even 24-hour gyms in a variety of suburban communities in Massachusetts. Boston's economy won't rise and fall on whether type-A lawyers can blast their abs at 3 a.m. But the Boylston Street case raised a vital question: Is Boston flexible enough to accommodate residents with out-of-the-ordinary needs?
"Nothing good happens after midnight," goes an old refrain — variants of which pop up time and again at community meetings. This attitude is a vestige of when only muggers and prostitutes would brave city streets in the wee hours. But for longtime residents, it's easy to underestimate how thoroughly parts of Boston have been transformed in recent years. Between 2000 and 2010, Boston's tiny urban core — an area of less than 4 square miles stretching from the Fenway to the North End — added more than 13,000 residents. As once-decrepit properties fill with people and life, as the former Combat Zone gives way to luxury apartment towers, the automatic equation of late-night hours with seedy activity is less applicable than ever.
As a practical matter, few shop owners and restaurateurs in the city's quieter, less dense neighborhoods are clamoring to stay open past 11 p.m. In some areas, though, Boston should be working actively to promote late-night commerce. City Hall could designate a few areas — the obvious candidates include Boylston Street, Downtown Crossing, the Theatre District, and the Innovation District — as target sites for late-night stores, diners, and other businesses.
With such clusters, weeknight workhorses would know where to go for 2 a.m. Cobb salads, and weekend revelers would know where to sober up over pizza after the bars let out. Police could focus their patrols on these areas, too. And if the MBTA were ever to resurrect its Night Owl service — as Governor Patrick contemplates doing, at least on weekends — the existence of specific late-night business zones simplifies the job of creating viable bus routes.
The lack of late-night transit complicates the ability of businesses to hire workers, many of whom have no way to get home beyond walking or, until recently, riding their own bikes home. A cab ride back to Brighton or Jamaica Plain can eat up much of what a downtown restaurant server earns on a slow night. Meanwhile, the limit on the number of taxi medallions means that, at least on weekends, even people who can afford cabs can't always find them.
In the past, these problems seemed unsolvable. The T's Night Owl experiment from 2001 to 2005 was underused, in part because the buses arrived too infrequently. But in just eight years, public transportation has become far more predictable; in the smartphone era, a bus that comes only every half-hour is still convenient because T customers know when to expect it.
Smartphone technologies can also take pressure off the taxi system — as long as local regulators leave car-hailing services like Uber to their own devices. Cab companies bristle at the competition; taxi regulators complain about fares based on GPS instead of traditional cab meters and about prices that spike when cars are scarce. Yet everyone who pays so-called "surge prices" for a car during late hours is freeing up a cab for someone else.
Other advances hold promise as well. Except in the winter, the Hubway bike-sharing system is available round the clock. Local universities may be persuaded to use their van fleets in innovative ways. Such advances make Boston's late-night transportation problem look less complicated — and take away the excuse that Boston logistically can't operate as a 24-hour city.
City Councilor Mike Ross frames the issue in an intriguing way: In a densely packed city without much easily developable space, extending the city's operating hours is a way for more people to share its amenities. Software engineers eating burgers at 2 a.m. probably weren't occupying a restaurant table four hours earlier. Emergency-room nurses running treadmill sprints at 4 a.m. aren't taking up machines at 8:30. And who's to say their preferences are wrong? A city that's open later is more accommodating in every sense of the term.