Proposals seen likely to reshape nightlife in Boston

Mike Deehan, Special to the Reporter
Jun. 12, 2014

It might soon be a lot easier to get a drink after midnight in Boston and get to where you want to go afterwards. Two major policy changes spurred by legislators, one already in effect and one pending, are likely to reshape how Bostonians travel in the wee hours and where they can get to.

Late-night MBTA service began this spring – on weekend nights when, for the first time, people could use the subway until 3 a.m. The pilot program is funded in part by private donations, but if it proves successful, it could become the norm for nocturnal travel in the notoriously early-to-bed community.

The second change concerns the city’s long battle to lift the state-mandated cap on the number of liquor licenses in Boston to allow for more restaurants in developing areas. Boston is the only municipality without the authority to direct its own alcohol sales licensing. Gov. Deval Patrick filed a bill last month that would give cities and towns the authority over how many beer, wine, and liquor licenses are to be distributed within their communities.

The state’s hold on licenses in the capital city is a legacy of the time when Republican Brahmins ruled city and state governments and immigrants, especially the Irish, were in the ascendant politically. Given the cap, supply and demand caused the price of liquor licenses to skyrocket over the intervening years, to the point where many smaller neighborhood businesses can’t afford the steep price tag for the permit, spelling doom for many restaurants that make much of their profit on alcohol sales.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, and Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley are leading an effort to transfer authority over alcohol permitting to the city’s Licensing Board in the hope that City Hall will put the permits to use as an economic driver for struggling neighborhoods. Most trade organizations would be thrilled if government officials aggressively tried to help them grow their industry, but Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Bob Luz finds himself in a bit of a fix. His organization represents the interests of the state’s dining establishments, and since many current restaurant owners spent tens of thousands, or even hundred of thousands, of dollars on the hard-to-get permits, increasing the supply of licenses would drastically decrease the value of their original investment.

Luz jokes that his organization is “solidly uncommitted” to the idea, but thankful that civic leaders think restaurants can help develop underserved communities. “We’re excited that they would want to expand the opportunity to do that. At the same time, I know there has to be thoughtful consideration given to those existing owners,” Luz told the Reporter. The liquor license are so expensive that many owners l use them as pledgeable assets with their banks. If the value of that asset drops, banks could come looking for different collateral, said Luz. “That’s the conundrum we’re in right now. On the one hand, we believe strongly we can help neighborhoods grow, especially neighborhoods that are looking to redevelop themselves, but it has to be done without hurting people who have built a whole business plan” around the existing system. Luz said he’s open to considering alternative plans that may help take some of the financial sting from existing owners, but he’d like to see the every option considered in the process.

According to Walsh’s intergovernmental affairs office, the mayor is working to get Pressley’s petition through the Legislature with added restrictions on where new licenses would be located to minimize the impact they would have on existing licensees. Walsh is also backing Forry’s legislation, part of the Senate’s budget bill for next year, that would let establishments within the MBTA’s late-night service area close after 2 a.m.

The MBTA has recorded 2,430 individual riders using the five Dorchester Red Line stations to enter the subway between the start of late-night service on March 28 and May 23. Ashmont station, the end of the Dorchester branch of the line, had the most riders, with 921. JFK/UMass station, which also connects to the Quincy and Braintree line, saw 704 riders. Fields Corner station registered 349, while Savin Hill brought in 288 and Shawmut 168.

According to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo, no decisions have been made about what will happen next spring at the end of the one-year pilot program. “We’ll be monitoring it and collecting ridership data through the summer and fall before any recommendations are made,” Pesaturo wrote in an email.

The MRA’s Luz said the late night schedule has not caused a huge impact in sales for restaurants, but that it has given employees a more consistent way to travel home after their shifts. The service has also had the unforeseen but positive result of making some of the restaurants cleaner since employees no longer need to rush to the last train or bus. “It’s really been on the employee basis and not the customer basis,” Luz said, adding that the extended hours, to which the MRA donated some private funding, has been a big win for the industry.

MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott told the Reporter she was always confident the late-night system would be a hit. “So far it’s been very successful,” she said. “We’ve been watching the numbers. I think they’re very good.” Scott is happy not only with the ridership of the pilot program, but also with the fact that fears of increased rowdiness or crime have not been a problem top date. “Honestly, it has been very, very normal. Folks have been very courteous,” she said, adding that she expects the community to react to the later T service by staying up later themselves. Additionally, she wasn’t surprised by Forcena Forry’s amendment to keep bars on the same schedule as the T. “As businesses started realizing that this is really real,” Scott said of the service, “what you’d start seeing is that this would happen.”