BOSTON CITY Councilor Ayanna Pressley knows that good restaurants can turn entire neighborhoods around. The Ashmont Grill turned around a blighted corner of Pressley’s part of Dorchester. The restaurant became a destination for diners both around and outside of Peabody Square, lifting up the surrounding blocks just by bringing money into the neighborhood and putting bodies on the sidewalks during lunch and dinner. The building where Pressley lives picked up on this momentum and spread it to the Ashmont Station area.
We know that an exciting city starts with vibrant neighborhoods full of active streets and sidewalks. But Beacon Hill has a chokehold on one of the most effective tools for turning around neighborhoods — local liquor licenses. Beacon Hill’s control of liquor licenses is rooted in antipathy between Boston’s Brahmins and its Irish. The ancient political feud has faded, and liquor licenses are now entwined with neighborhood-betterment efforts. But restaurateurs are forced to pay exorbitant prices to obtain scarce liquor licenses, and neighborhoods told to fight for pieces of an artificially small pie, because Beacon Hill still treats alcohol as an Irish menace, rather than a tool for economic development.
The link between vibrant neighborhoods and busy sidewalks is nothing new. Jane Jacobs was preaching this stuff 50 years ago. Streets that cater to residents and office workers and shoppers function better than streets devoted to one single use. The key to turning streets around, in converting a Boylston Street lined with gas stations and tire shops into a Boylston Street full of homes and offices and restaurants, sits on the ground floor.
In Cambridge, a flood of new restaurants has jettisoned Kendall Square’s old reputation as an urban wasteland, a part-time office park at the foot of the Longfellow Bridge. The neighborhood’s lack of nightlife was once its great weakness. Now, companies are paying huge premiums to occupy offices above places like Area Four, Firebrand Saints, and Catalyst. New residents and out-of-town diners are streaming into the neighborhood. It’s all because Cambridge officials didn’t have to ask Beacon Hill’s permission before making a big restaurant push.
Cambridge is an oddity in Massachusetts: a municipality that can set its own alcohol policy. Every other city and town in the state oversees a quantity of liquor licenses fixed by the state. A Prohibition-era legal quirk means Cambridge operates outside the hard liquor license cap. The city restricts licenses in saturated neighborhoods like Harvard Square, but Kendall Square, the city’s growth engine, is mostly uncapped. Dozens of restaurants have opened in Kendall over the past three years; not one has had to wait on a cap-lifting bill from the State House, or had to pay through the nose for a secondhand license.
This is a luxury no other city or town enjoys. When Boston runs out of liquor licenses, the city has to beg Beacon Hill lawmakers for more. Sometimes the request gets answered; sometimes it doesn’t. A frothy secondary market has replaced any reliable means of meeting demand for licenses with supply. Full liquor licenses can cost restaurateurs as much as $350,000, while a license to sell beer and wine costs up to $55,000. The system floods some neighborhoods, like the North End, with licenses, while all but freezing out places like Mattapan. And it means development-minded neighborhoods, be they Ashmont in Dorchester or Assembly Square in Somerville, can’t truly plan for growth.
Pressley is pushing a bill that would lift the state liquor license cap, and return licensing to cities and towns. A similar effort by Somerville failed two years ago.
Pressley recently found herself in Dudley Square at night, looking for a place to meet with a pair of colleagues. The neighborhood coffee shop had closed for the day, and Pressley had to huddle up in a sub shop. Dudley Square desperately needs a place where residents can go at night. The city is sinking millions into a new municipal office building in the square in the hopes of spurring a new wave of development in the area. But as long as liquor licenses run through Beacon Hill and restaurant brokers, instead of through City Hall, Boston officials have no way of bringing the kind of development that turned Ashmont and Kendall around to Dudley.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.