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North End restaurants threaten to sue over new outdoor dining fees

A server brings beverages to a group of people dining for lunch at Mother Anna’s in the North End in 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A server brings beverages to a group of people dining for lunch at Mother Anna’s in the North End in 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Karen and Frank Pellino were excited about the possibility of outdoor dining this summer for their restaurant Casarecce Ristorante in the North End. Staff were looking forward to the extra tips and the restaurant was starting to hire new people to help out with the expected extra tables.

But then they heard about the city's new fee for North End restaurants to operate patios this summer.

"It felt just so unfair," wrote Karen Pellino in an emailed statement to WBUR. "The North End is made up of mostly small, family run mom-and-pop restaurants. These excessive fees are not affordable."

So, the Pellinos created an online petition asking for signatures of those who believe the fee is unfair and should be removed. Forty-eight hours after it was created, it had more than 20,000 signatures. A banner on the petition reads: "At 25,000 signatures, this petition becomes one of the top signed on Change.org!"

The Pellinos are not alone in this fight. Dozens of North End restauranteurs are prepared to pursue legal action in response to the new program. Frank Mendoza, co-owner of Monica's Trattoria, is one of those organizing restaurant owners against the fees. He told WBUR that about 60 owners met on Friday and decided to retain a lawyer to fight the program.

A man jogs past cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street, Friday, June 12, 2020, in the North End neighborhood of Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A man jogs past cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street, Friday, June 12, 2020, in the North End neighborhood of Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Christian Silvestri was one of those restaurant owners at the meeting.

He co-owns Rabia's Dolce Fumo on Salem Street with his brother. Silvestri calls the fees discriminatory and questions why restaurants in other parts of the city, like on Newbury Street, aren't facing the same fees.

"I mean, you have trash everywhere, you have the same impact everywhere," said Silvestri. "Now is the North End maybe more dense in restaurants, in a small area? Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything? We're all paying our taxes."

Rabia's opened in December 2019, but Silvestri says he's lived in and out of the North End his whole life. Today, he lives a seven minute walk from Rabia's.

Silvestri says the last two years have been tough in the pandemic, but outdoor dining has helped. He's worried the fees could pit restaurants against each other in a neighborhood that's traditionally very tightly knit. He says with these fees, smaller restaurants could be in trouble.

"Let's just say I had 50 tables inside and 30 tables outside," said Silvestri. "Those 30 tables outside are going to be full before the tables inside. So if a guy next to me has outdoor dining and I don't, he's getting all the people, I got none."

Restaurant-goers enjoy dinner on an outdoor patio at Terramia Ristorante in Boston's North End on Sept. 4, 2020. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Restaurant-goers enjoy dinner on an outdoor patio at Terramia Ristorante in Boston's North End on Sept. 4, 2020. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wasn't available for an interview with WBUR on Saturday. She did, however, share a letter that was sent to restaurant owners on Friday. In that letter Wu said the North End has the densest concentration of restaurants of anywhere in the city. Last year, according to the letter, the North End was home to 77 outdoor dining patios, including 70 on public property. That's compared with 51 in Back Bay (21 of those on street) and 14 in the Seaport.

Wu says as a result, the neighborhood also had more 311 and resident complaints "related to noise, congestion, rodents and street cleanliness from outdoor dining than anywhere else — by far"

The proposed fees include a one-time fee of $7,500, plus a monthly fee of $450-$500 per parking spot occupied by a restaurant's patio.

During an appearance on Monday's Radio Boston, Wu clarified the one-time fee could be paid in monthly installments of $1,500 rather than upfront. She also said some restaurants may qualify for hardship vouchers, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Those options were not included in Friday's letter to restauranteurs.

Regardless, Wu said this money would go toward mitigating the impacts of widespread outdoor dining to the neighborhood.

"In two public community meetings convened over the past two months, residents expressed deep opposition to any form of outdoor dining or pleaded with the City to take a more active role in mitigating community impacts," wrote Wu. "As believers in the benefits of outdoor dining, we crafted the North End program in an effort to try one last time to strike the right balance with thoughtful spacing, time limitations, increased safety protections, and other resources necessary to mitigate the impacts on parking, trash, rodents, and public safety."

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In that same letter to restaurant owners, Wu wrote that she knows the benefits of outdoor dining, but there also has to be a way to support the benefits. She said restaurants have until April 10 to apply for the program and if a "critical mass" of owners feel the program won't work, she's ready to not offer outdoor dining at all in the North End this year.

"Let's just say I had 50 tables inside and 30 tables outside. Those 30 tables outside are going to be full before the tables inside. So if a guy next to me has outdoor dining and I don't, he's getting all the people, I got none."

Christian Silvestri, co-owner of Rabia's Dolce Fumo

Frank Mendoza, of Monica's Trattoria, says this could be devastating for the neighborhood.

"If the whole North End doesn't have patio space ... you're gonna go to the Seaport, you're gonna go to Beacon Hill, Back Bay, East Boston, Mattapan, you're gonna go to some other neighborhood that has outside seating," said Mendoza. "We're at a disadvantage if we don't have outside seating."

WBUR's Josie Guarino contributed to this report.

This article was originally published on March 26, 2022.

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Amanda Beland Twitter Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.

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