Struggling new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D) seems hellbent on making things difficult or impossible for city restaurants, many of which are still struggling in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. Wu is facing growing criticism from restaurateurs, columnists, and others in the city for her administration's unfair and outrageous outdoor-dining policies.
The city's pilot outdoor dining program, started two years ago under then-mayor Marty Walsh (D), was intended—like similar programs I've discussed in New York City and elsewhere—to offer a lifeline to restaurants that have been teetering on the brink as they attempt to survive restrictions on indoor dining.
"The Outdoor Dining Program allows restaurants to apply to use expanded public spaces for outdoor seating and is set to start citywide on April 1," Boston.com reported this week. "The program has been in place for the last two years of the pandemic and has been particularly popular in the North End, which has drawn large crowds with its outdoor dining options."
While this week marks the official, government-mandated start of the pilot outdoor dining season in most of Boston, the rules say those in the North End may only offer outdoor dining starting on May 1. That seems unfair. The North End is Boston's beloved Little Italy neighborhood. Growing up north of Boston, I ate many excellent meals there. And I continue to dine there on return visits to the area.
But wait! There's more!
A couple weeks ago, as outdoor-dining season approached, Mayor Wu announced the city would charge North End restaurants $7,500 for the privilege of offering outdoor seating under the pilot program. Under that same program, restaurants in other parts of the city face no such fees. "Restaurants that use public property under 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," the Boston Globe reported this week.
The city claims so many restaurants in the North End have taken advantage of outdoor dining under the pilot program—their customers clearly like it—that it's resulted in increased complaints about rats, noise, and traffic and parking issues.
Last week, North End restaurateurs, rightly outraged by the sudden onset of expensive fees, sent a letter of protest to Mayor Wu, blasting the city for treating them unequally and threatening to sue the city over the exorbitant and unfair fees.
Wu responded to her constituents' concerns in the perhaps worst way possible. "If a critical mass of restaurant owners also believe this program is unworkable as proposed, then I am prepared to rescind North End outdoor dining before the start of this season," Wu wrote.
Critics pounced on Wu's perceived pettiness.
In a great column this week, the Globe's Joan Vennochi lamented the fact Wu is "holding on to a misguided plan to impose a hefty fee only on North End restaurants that want to provide outside dining." Vennochi, who notes this conflict is of Wu's own making, closes with the following sentiment: "Yikes."
Later in the week, Wu backed down—slightly. WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate, reports Wu held a press conference to propose a modified "compromise" scheme that would allow North End restaurants to pay the same high fee in several installments, to pay a lower fee for more limited patio use, or to pay a lower fee by applying for a "hardship waiver," among other things. That fee, though, still applies only to restaurants in the North End, which many North End restaurateurs still find odious and unfair.
So they complained. Or tried to, at least.
"Restaurant owners who oppose Wu were barred from entering the press conference… outside the mayor's office, prompting them to protest angrily in City Hall," the crosstown Boston Herald reported this week, of what was a very intentional exclusion. The Herald also blasted Wu's tactics as "not a good look" and clearly "designed to quell the outrage while isolating her critics."
Though some support the mayor's actions, her critics' ranks are growing. And while Wu's fight with the North End restaurateurs drew much of the focus to problems with the city's outdoor dining program recently, yet another Boston Globe story, published at the end of the week, revealed many restaurateurs around the city—not just in the North End—think the program now stinks.
"Ahead of the 2021 outdoor dining season, [Andy Fadous of Gray's Hall in South Boston] worked with a landscape architect to create an industrial-style patio that could be deconstructed every year," the Globe reports. "But now, the barriers do not comply with the new requirements."
Those "new requirements" refer to a 23-page list of recently modified outdoor-dining rules—some of which make obsolete the costly outdoor-dining setups that Gray's Hall and many other Boston restaurants purchased and used over the last two years.
As Fadous told the Globe, he was forced by the new rules to order $5,000 of new barriers because the old ones are no longer allowed. And since the barriers won't arrive for another month, Fadous says he's going to lose out on a month of outdoor-dining income simply because the city didn't have (my words, not Fadous's) its shit together. Other restaurateurs quoted in the piece suggest offering outdoor "seating is no longer worth the cost." Some note, too, that larger chain restaurants are more able to absorb these sorts of city-imposed costs. Wu's approach, then, could cost Boston many of its remaining independent restaurants, and make the city a haven for chain restaurants.
Why does Mayor Wu appear to be treating outdoor dining like it's some sort of existential threat to city living? The city's attitude is particularly galling because—in stark contrast to Mayor Wu—many city leaders around the country have actually embraced and encouraged outdoor dining.
New York City under former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), which I noted earlier, is one such city. Seattle, where I live, is another.
"This is another meaningful step along the pathway to permanence I created last year after hearing from many small businesses about the success of café streets," said Seattle City Councilor Dan Strauss (D), who sponsored Seattle's outdoor-dining program, which passed by an 8-0 vote. "We will ensure that these free permits continue to be available until [city officials] establish permanent guidelines that are right-sized and meet the needs of our city."
Fair and equal treatment. Responsive government. Clear and timely rules. That's all most Boston restaurateurs want. Instead, Mayor Wu is serving them up a heaping pile of my-way-or-the-highway policymaking. And for what?