If you find yourself in a bar, club, concert venue, or restaurant soon, take a look around. Count the number of things the place offers from which you could, theoretically at least, derive enjoyment. Does it have a fully stocked bar? Great! How about a TV or a pool table? Does the place make those bomb-ass parmesan truffle fries? Is there a DJ spinning or a dance floor? No? How about a sound system hooked up to an iPod? All of those help set the tone at a bar or restaurant, and several of them are probably the reason you went there in the first place. However, the city makes it very, very difficult for businesses to get these amenities. The reason is that Boston is saddled with an inflexible, outdated permitting system.
Before I go any further, I should be clear that I’m not talking about liquor licensing. The number of liquor licenses available in Boston is actually controlled by the state government, not City Hall (though that might change, because mayor-elect Marty Walsh and some city councilors like Ayanna Pressley have made campaign promises about trying to bring control of liquor licensing to city government). What I am talking about is a separate issue of city permitting. Anyone brave (or foolish) enough to try to open a bar or restaurant in Boston has to jump through a series of hoops to get the licenses and permits they need to operate legally. Some of these are sensible, like regulations that ensure fire safety. But some are downright ridiculous. As the Globe’s Farah Stockman reported in an awesome column in October, you need a separate license to have dancing in your establishment. The same goes for “non-live entertainment” like a stereo or a TV. Pool tables require a different form entirely, as does live music.
How did this come about? I asked Michelle Wu, who was elected to her first term as an at-large city councilor this month, and who previously worked in City Hall trying to streamline Boston’s permitting process.
“It evolved organically over time due to the city’s history,” she said. According to Wu, a lot of Boston’s regulations about fire safety in bars and restaurants were originally enacted after a 1942 blaze at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which at the time was one of the city’s premier spots, killed 492 people. The dancing regulation has been on the books since 1926.
Another element that often holds up permit applications is that neighborhood groups — who are often more concerned about noise and traffic problems than with the economic development a new business can bring — are given deferential treatment by City Hall. Often these groups can stop a new project if they wish.
“What these regulations are trying to protect is very important,” Wu said. “But there is a balance between regulating this and making the process clear and predictable.”
There is more to this issue than just the city being a buzzkill, and we should care about reforming this process for several important reasons. First of all, Boston’s ability to attract and keep talented people is directly related to the quality of life the city can offer. While Boston’s high housing costs play a big part in this, our inability to foster a really dynamic bar and restaurant scene is a big turn-off for a lot of people who we should be attracting. This makes it difficult for Boston to compete with other cities like New York or San Francisco. There is a reason that most of the really funky new spots, like the cocktail den Backbar in Somerville’s Union Square, open outside of city limits.
But the more important reason is that this system directly contributes to the city’s inequality. Creating vibrant local businesses in some of Boston’s neighborhoods will go a long way toward developing some of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods like Mattapan and Roxbury. But an overly-complicated permitting system that forces people to submit paperwork to multiple city agencies inadvertently favors wealthier applicants.
“A lot of business owners, especially at the local level, get caught in the system,” Wu said. “The people who make it through the process are the ones who can afford a consultant or can take the time off work.”
This description generally excludes people trying to open up a bar or restaurant anywhere outside of Downtown Boston or the Back Bay. It will take a total overhaul of the permitting system to spur a restaurant revolution in all of Boston’s communities. Getting neighborhood groups on board — that’s a different story.