Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
It turns out the North End isn’t the only Boston neighborhood where restaurant owners say they’re being unfairly burdened by new outdoor dining regulations being imposed this year.
Restaurants elsewhere in the city say they’ve also been saddled with new regulations that are pushing up the cost to have outdoor space.
In the North End, restaurants are being asked to pay a $7,500 fee, which, after some backlash, Mayor Michelle Wu agreed could be paid in installments. The city will also offer a “hardship waiver process” that could wind up reducing that fee.
“I believe we can come to a situation this summer where our community members — which includes our residents and our restaurant owners — are all thriving,” Wu said at the time. “We need the resources to do that.”
The North End had almost 80 patios within just a quarter mile last year. The patios have created congestion and parking issues, along with noise, rodents, and other concerns that haven’t come up elsewhere in Boston. The fee was instilled to help offset some of the issues, Wu said.
But even though restaurants in other parts of the city don’t face the same fee, some owners are saying new regulations come with a hefty price tag of their own — one some businesses won’t be able to afford.
David Doyle operates Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain. He said that additional insurance – a new regulation this year – plus upgraded barriers around his outdoor space have cost him just under $5,000. He hopes the new barriers will continue to be the standard in the future.
“We’re going to assume it’s not a lost investment,” he said, adding that he hopes the city will take feedback from restaurateurs on the process.
For instance, while he said understands why barriers that weigh hundreds of pounds are safer than the wooden pallets he used last year, he said the old barriers were decorated and businesses were creative in dressing them up.
Tres Gatos’s, for example, had a string of 45-sized records on it.
“It was artistic,” Doyle said. “It was attractive, and it had planters on top of it. That’s out the window now. We have no use for it.”
Doyle also pointed out that some businesses may not have the extra funds to buy into insurance or for the new barriers.
“Some of us are concerned about the effect of these new rules and expenses for businesses that are underrepresented in Boston,” Doyle said, noting that these include businesses run by people of color, or those for whom English is their second language.
According to a presentation on outdoor dining from the city, businesses must obtain commercial general liability insurance. They must also provide ramps for ADA compliance. Restaurants are also not allowed to have entertainment on their patios. This includes background music, TV, or other entertainment, whether live or recorded.
Restaurants can’t prepare food on the sidewalk or on the street. Smoking and vaping are not allowed. Just service dogs for people with disabilities are allowed; all other animals are not, the presentation says.
On the barriers, the city mandates that they must be concrete or water-filled. They must measure 72 inches long, by 32 inches to 36 inches high, and 18 inches wide.
“All barriers shall be in a high contrast color to the roadway,” the presentation said. “The exterior of barriers should never be painted black or other dark colors as they are difficult to see at night and can be dangerous to vehicles.”
The JP Centre/South Main Streets organization wrote a letter to the city about these concerns, asking for the city to consider “how the process perpetuates racial disparities and inequities for small business owners.”
Along with the new insurance requirement and cost of the barriers, the organization noted that the process for instituting permanent outdoor dining included “multiple hearings with city agencies,” various outreach requirements and documents, plus plan approval from 10 different city departments, according to the letter.
“The last two years have been a fair trial of the benefits of increased outdoor seating, and the ability of our city to facilitate that,” the letter said. “The 2020-2021 streamlined application process allowed small businesses to survive and thrive, enliven their neighborhood district, and keep their local economy going.
“However, endorsing the 2022 guidelines and the former application process would be akin to acknowledging that disparity and inequity were simply ‘standard practice’ for our city. Our small businesses would once again be victims.”
Ginger Brown, executive director of the organization, said that considering the new guidelines, plus the way the application process was pre-pandemic, “the application is inequitable.”
“You can only get through it if you have a lot of money and resources,” she said. “It can create a disparity between those who can afford it and understand the process and those who can’t.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Wu’s administration said the city Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion and Neighborhood Services “always seeks to be responsive” to community concerns, and that they plan to work with restaurants to make the new regulations manageable — even providing “a limited supply of barriers” to some restaurants for free.
“These offices will be working closely with businesses throughout Boston to help them navigate the new guidance for this year,” the statement said. “In an effort to ensure equitable participation in the temporary outdoor dining program, these offices will assist small businesses that face financial challenges in complying with the guidelines by purchasing a limited supply of barriers that meet the new requirements and will make them available to approved establishments free of charge.
“The new barrier requirements were implemented to improve safety on outdoor dining patios and are in line with the requirements to protect pedestrians when contractors and developers have to temporarily reroute the walking path from the sidewalk onto the street,” the statement read.
In the future, Doyle said he thinks the process will be shifted to a permanent one versus the temporary pandemic one. It was “very complicated” before, he said, noting that he didn’t know it was even an option to have outdoor dining prior to the pandemic.
He said he hopes his and other businesses will be able to provide feedback to the city and the process will be streamlined. Outdoor dining has been “a boost of quality of life,” and an “increase in vitality,” Doyle said.
Brown said addressing outdoor dining regulations goes beyond the temporary regulations.
“It’s more than about the temporary guidelines,” she said. “It’s about making the permanent process equitable, as well.”
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.