To revitalize main streets, cut red tape at City Hall

With its web of open-ended regulations of local businesses, enforced by tough-minded regulators, Boston is hardly a hive of neighborhood commerce or service-industry innovation. Indeed, the city’s attitude toward local business owners conveys a sense of skepticism — as if every restaurant owner or shopkeeper were seeking to disrupt the peace and quiet of neighbors. But with a lack of middle-class housing topping Mayor Marty Walsh’s agenda, the focus of growth and development is increasingly moving to the city’s neighborhoods. And it’s an important moment to update and streamline onerous regulations.

City Councilor at Large Michelle Wu, a former small business owner herself, recently issued a preliminary report with 25 specific recommendations to modernize permitting and licensing, making good on one of the main promises of her 2013 campaign. And, with Walsh’s support, her report could provide the foundation for a real effort to make these administrative processes simpler, faster, and more predictable.

The well-known inertia that permeates City Hall — “this is how it’s been done for years” — is so deep-rooted that there was a sense that any attempt at streamlining the permitting and licensing process would take even more years. But Wu tackled the topic head on. Since late March, she’s been meeting with business owners across the city, and also canvassing city agencies.


Some of the recommendations in her report seem painfully obvious. For example, a business owner is currently required to file two different applications for a fire alarm permit, one from the Inspectional Services Department and another from the Fire Department. The same goes for commercial dumpsters. Wu proposes creating a single application system across agencies to consolidate overlapping processes. Another big theme is prioritizing customer service at these agencies. Some entrepreneurs are discouraged from starting a business because they feel the permitting and licensing process starts with a “no.” Perhaps more important, they need to have a realistic expectation of how long each step is going to take; Wu recommends providing clear estimates of processing times for each permit or license. Wu also suggests hiring a small-business liaison who could serve as an advocate for entrepreneurs.

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It’s important for city officials to acknowledge the role that local entrepreneurs can play in revitalizing the city’s main streets, and bringing new excitement to formerly staid and even downtrodden areas. “There’s a lot of great energy right now to get this done and make sure that our neighborhoods are open for business,” Wu says. The Walsh administration and the City Council should follow Wu’s lead and make regulatory streamlining and reform a top priority for the remainder of the year.

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