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Long-idle Back Bay restaurant space tests neighborhood's patience

Posted by Roy Greene  December 22, 2011 12:20 PM

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Boston.com photo by Matt Kauffman)


The current owner of the row house on Fairfield Street, restaurateur Joe Cimino, has been working to open his restaurant there more than five years.

For more than a decade, the building at 41 Fairfield St. has sat vacant and unused. The windows slightly above ground level are dusty and gray. From the outside, all that can be seen are stacks of boxes and wood boards leaning against the windows. It’s a strange scene for a prime piece of real estate.

It’s even stranger when trendy Newbury Street -- one of the most expensive commercial strips in New England -- sits just 20 feet from its front door.

The current owner of the row house on Fairfield Street, restaurateur Joe Cimino, has been working to open his restaurant there more than five years. Along the way, he has run into countless problems with the historic Back Bay structure.

Yet despite setbacks that have kept him from using the space commercially, Cimino has been able to keep his liquor license at the empty building since moving the license there in March 2006. The previous owner neglected to use his license as well, putting the building out of commission for over a decade.

Now, some prominent Back Bay residents say it's time for Cimino’s liquor license to be revoked.

“This license may be the longest-held unused alcohol license in the city of Boston. ... To my knowledge, it’s unprecedented,” said Martha Walz, state representative for the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the West End, and Cambridge. Walz said Cimino has held the license in various locations since 1998, and that the previous owners of the license hadn’t made use of it either, making it stagnant since the early 1990s.

In a letter to the Boston Licensing Board, Walz urged the board to revoke Cimino’s license. Another restaurant could use that license and generate jobs for the city, she said.

In the Back Bay, the Licensing Board limits the number of licenses granted in the area, through an unofficial agreement with the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. The cancellation of Cimino’s liquor license would open up a spot for another restaurateur.

The Neighborhood Association of Back Bay also is running out of patience. Jim Hill, chair of the association, said Cimino has had his license renewed every time he goes to the board, but nothing has come of it.

“There’s a business out there that could use it. He hasn’t used it at all," Hill said of Cimino's license, which the Neighborhood Association believes should be revoked because of the delays.

Cimino - who owns Ciao Bella and Daisy Buchanan’s, around the corner on Newbury Street -- asked the board in November for six to nine more months to open his new restaurant. Earlier this month, the Licensing Board agreed to extend Cimino’s license for 45 days.

Neither Cimino nor his lawyer could be reached for comment. They have previously stated that they’ve had several scheduling conflicts with contractors that have delayed work on the site.

Walz said that before Cimino can open his restaurant, he has a litany of changes to make to the building, some of which require approval or re-approval from various preservation organizations.

Walz said Cimino has approval to make changes to the inside of the building, but has not received a building permit for construction on the exterior. The restaurant owner must clear the city’s guidelines for groundwater conservation and install an elevator for handicapped access, she said.

But Stephen J. Murphy, president of the Boston City Council, thinks Cimino should be given more time to open his restaurant, and that Back Bay’s elected officials should be helping him, not hindering him.

Public representatives "are not supposed to be about stomping on the little guy,” said Murphy, who had a representative from his office speak in Cimino’s favor at a Licensing Board hearing. “In this particular case, it was clear to me that (Cimino) was doing everything to get his work done.”

Licensing Board Chairwoman Nicole Ferrer said several people have testified about progress being made on the Fairfield Street building. She would not comment on how Cimino has been able to retain his license for such a long time.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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