Mayor Wu today announced changes in the fee plan for North End dining: Restaurants can pay month by month to put tables on public sidewalks and parking spaces and small restaurants, restaurants without liquor licenses and those not on the main drags of Hanover and Salem streets can get "hardship" reductions in the fees that meant to pay for extra trash pickup and safety measures in the restaurant-dense neighborhood.
At a press conference at which she was supported by state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, state Sen. Lydia Edwards and several restaurant owners, Wu said the fees reflect the unique nature of the North End - which had more than 80 restaurants extending their dining areas to sidewalks and parking spaces last year, far more than anywhere else in the city, in a neighborhood with narrow and densely packed and populated streets.
Under the new program, restaurants with liquor licenses on Hanover and Salem streets can pay $1,500 a month for the right to expand onto sidewalks and parking spaces - so they don't have to pay the fully $7,500 fee up front or for an entire five-month program. Smaller restaurants or those on other streets can apply for reductions, she said.
Wu said those unique demands require more intensive city services. And she said there is nothing unusual about treating the North End differently, because the city tailor its services differently in different neighborhoods depending on their unique needs. "Equity doesn't mean equality across the board," she said, possibly referring to a Joan Vennochi column about her supposed equity problem.
Michlewitz, who lives in the North End, said residents love their restaurants, that the restaurants are part of what makes the neighborhood what it is, but that last year's experience showed densely packed dining landscape proved "unworkable" for many residents, who complained of everything from the loss of parking spaces to increased trash and rats.
"Our public space in the North End is more valuable than anywhere else because of how little space we actually have," he said, adding that the religious societies that are returning their festivals to the North End this year already had to pay fees for using the streets.
Restaurant owner Nick Varano, who grew up in the North End, praised Wu for trying to reach agreement with restaurant owners, and said her proposal could be a win for both residents and restaurant owners. Residents get cleaner, safer streets and the restaurants get a chance to expand dining in "the greatest inner-city Italian neighborhood in the country."
He added that if the program works, nice-weather outdoor dining could become permanent. "We can have this for a longer time,f for years to come," he said. "If we don't, it's going to be something we lost.:
Philip Frattaroli, whose family has long run restaurants in the neighborhood also supported the plan.
Not all North End restaurant owners suddenly fell in love with the plan. In fact, the mayor's office moved the press conference from its originally planned location in the City Hall atrium, which has the acoustics of a giant concrete box, where just a couple of screamers could drown out Wu and Varano, to the Eagle Room, where the mayor can and did order the thick doors shut to limit protesters, who went to the mayor's office to yell at the help.
Wu added that the brouhaha over the fee highlighted for her that Boston needs to do a better job on rodent control, trash pickup and pedestrian safety across entire city.