The Boston City Council on Wednesday approved a request by Councilor Frank Baker to ask the state legislature for 12 new liquor licenses for the South Bay Town Center project.
The company building the mixed-use complex says that without these licenses, they'd be forced to seek national restaurant chains, of the sort that already predominate along the Waterfront, rather than the locally owned and provisioned mom-and-pop restaurants that they say will turn their concrete and bricks into true neighborhoods - because only national chains can afford licenses that come on the market these days.
Brad Dumont, a vice president at Edens, the company building the South Bay project, says the lack of licenses would likely even slow the finish of the work, because many restaurant operators would be more reluctant to take a chance on a project in what is now a sort of forgotten wasteland next to an interstate. "We need help," he told Boston councilors at a hearing on Tuesday.
At issue is the state cap on the number of liquor licenses available in Boston. In 2014, the legislature granted Boston 75 new licenses, 60 of which could only be used in specific neighborhoods, including Dorchester. Earlier this year, the Boston Licensing Board denied new licenses to an AMC cineplex and a Wahlburgers at South Bay, because they were at least a year away from opening and other places could use licenses now.
Both the legislature and Gov. Baker would have to agree to the additional licenses, which would then be doled out by the licensing board. Proponents say the licenses would be geographically limited to the project - so they couldn't be snapped up by restaurants elsewhere.
Restaurant operators can still get a license in Boston - if they can find somebody willing to sell, at prices upwards of $300,000.
Baker said the measure would provide a shot in the arm for what is now a largely forgotten corner of the city.
"There's no real life down there, there's nothing going on," and the license proposal would help spur an Assembly Square-like area in Dorchester, Baker said.
Councilor Bill Linehan had proposed a similar request for three licenses for the Seaport Square project in the South Boston Waterfront. But councilors agreed with at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty that a project in the middle of one of the state's most booming areas doesn't really need the same sort of economic stimulus as South Bay.
"You could probably pay for a hundred (liquor licenses) on the open market and not break a sweat," Flaherty told Yanni Tsipis, a vice president at WS, which is working on the Seaport Square project.
Not so fast, Tsipis said. Even if the company were willing to buy the licenses, they might be hard to come by because of the booming state of Boston overall. And if the company did, they licenses would likely come from "Main Street" districts in the outer reaches of the city, places such as Hyde Park and Allston/Brighton, and the company doesn't want to do that, he said.
Dumont acknowledged that, due to construction costs in Boston these days, his company would have to charge higher rents to entrepreneurial chefs than they would see in other parts of Dorchester. But he said the company is willing to work with local chefs on an "incubator" concept in which they'd get a short-term lease based on their revenue. If the restaurants work out, Edens would talk to them about a more traditional, longer-term lease based on a set amount per square foot of space.
At-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley praised the jobs and resources that the new projects would bring. But Pressley, who led the charge for the 75 new licenses in 2014, said that, ultimately, Boston needs to gain full control over the number of licenses it can dole out, so that neighborhoods are no longer pitted against each other for a scarce resource.
"It's unfortunate we have to get this creative about an economic development tool," she said.