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Hundreds more liquor licenses could be coming to Boston under newly proposed legislation, and Boston.com readers couldn’t be happier about it.
The bills, H.3741 and S.2380, would create five new non-transferable licenses a year for five years in 10 zip codes that have been long-ignored, Boston City Councilor Brian Worrell of District 4 told Boston.com in an interview. In total, this means Boston could see an additional 250 licenses over five years if the legislation is approved.
We asked our readers if Boston should add more liquor licenses to its roster. Of the 64 respondents to this poll question, 70% said yes, 20% said no, and 9% said it depends.
When we asked if they would support a bill that would allow up to 250 new liquor licenses over 5 years, the majority (83%) of the more than 170 respondents said they would support such legislation.
Worrell was the original sponsor of the two bills’ predecessor, a home rule petition put forward in January to add non-transferable liquor licenses to specific neighborhoods. The petition passed unanimously (11-0) in the Boston City Council and was signed by Mayor Michelle Wu, moving the petition to the Legislature for further approval.
With these bills, Miranda, Brian and Christopher Worrell, and city officials are aiming to work around Boston’s antiquated liquor license cap and make how liquor licenses are given out — through the city and on its private market – more equitable.
Boston’s liquor laws date back to a 1933 prejudicial decision, with the city’s licenses capped at about 1,400 by state law.
“Old-school state legislators in the 1930s were distrustful and disapproving of a predominantly Irish city council, and worried that Boston might be too lax when it came to restricting the number of bars in the city’s limits. So Beacon Hill took jurisdiction over alcohol licensing,” according to Boston magazine.
Boston is the only municipality in the state to have a liquor license cap, and as a result of the regulation, the price of licenses has skyrocketed.
Worrell said the last liquor license purchased on the private market sold for over half a million dollars, coming in at $625,000. The prevalence of big corporate buyers and the fact that most licenses are transferable – meaning business owners can purchase liquor licenses from other businesses that may have closed or are no longer using them – has added to the high sticker price.
“It’s a secondary market. So just like any other secondary or any other market, the buyer dictates the value of the asset that they’re buying, and because there are not a lot of liquor licenses and so many commercial fronts and a lot of our business districts are booming, that helps drive up the price of these liquor licenses,” he said.
Many readers had qualms with the current licensing system in Boston.
“The private market for liquor licenses is wrong and is why our food scene is overtaken by large restaurant groups versus small up and coming chefs who’s vision and cooking ability could make this city a real spot for foodies,” Melissa from the South End said. “Private market license sharing should be phased out, this law was birthed from prohibition we need to move on.”
Douglas H., also from the South End, said businesses should not have to wait for others to fail in order to nab a license. “It limits growth and opportunity for the little guy, the chefs and talent that could offer us a wider range of options in Boston,” he said.
Kimberly from Randolph agreed saying “the license process only benefits companies with deep pockets that bounce on closing restaurants,” which she said leaves small, independent restaurants without an opportunity to get a license.
There is currently no legislation in place to get rid of the cap, Worrell said, but he acknowledged that the proposed bills are “a step to getting much needed economic tools to neighborhoods that need it the most.”
Numerous readers shared their outrage and frustration at the city’s cap, which many called antiquated, racist, and ridiculous.
“It is insane that bigots from almost 100 years ago are dictating how the city is run now,” Mark M. from Boston said. “No other municipality in Mass. has a state set cap, so why should Boston? It is time to allow Boston full control over its own licensing.”
Casey C. from Waltham agreed. He didn’t grow up in Boston, but said the city needs to catch up with 21st century policies.
“The state and local liquor laws ranging from happy hour bans to this cap are both archaic and restrictive with little to no evidence providing justification for them. Boston needs to adjust to 2023 and adopt policies that the overwhelming majority of other cities have accepted as common practice,” he said.
Most of Boston’s liquor licenses are heavily concentrated in neighborhoods like Back Bay and the Seaport, whereas communities like Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester have just a fraction of the city’s licenses, according to Worrell and data compiled by Tufts University.
“Despite having only half a percent of Boston’s population, South Boston’s waterfront has more than 15% of liquor licenses in the city,” Worrell said at a Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee hearing on the bills earlier this month. “Meanwhile, Dorchester houses over 14% of all Bostonians, yet has less than 3% of the liquor licenses.”
These disparities go back twenty years to the early 2000s, Worrell said, when liquor licenses started migrating out of these neighborhoods and into the downtown area, namely the Seaport and business districts.
“We saw 70 liquor licenses end up in the Seaport neighborhood from 2000 to 2023. And those liquor licenses had to come from somewhere. Some of those licenses did come from the Dorchester, Mattapan neighborhoods,” Worrell said.
The new bills would add new liquor licenses that would be targeted to specific zip codes spanning the neighborhoods Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, East Boston, and large portions of Dorchester. They would also be non-transferable, meaning they can’t be sold on the private market. If a business closes or no longer needs the license for whatever reason, it would go back to City Hall to be given out to another business in the same zip code.
Targeting and tying the licenses to the specific zip codes would have measurable economic benefits for these neighborhoods, Worrell said.
“Liquor licenses increase restaurants revenue by two times the amount, and the fact that our restaurants don’t have liquor licenses further deepens our ability to create wealth, and also widens those disparities when it comes to economics in our neighborhood,” he said. “That goes into our ability to provide jobs and our ability to reinvest into our community.”
Reader Matt from Medford said increasing the amount of liquor licenses and restricting them to specific neighborhoods and from being sold privately could even help stabilize the market and help bring the cost of licenses down.
“I’d like to see them continue this over a longer time period,” he said of the bills’ five-year action plan.
Read below to see a sampling of what readers had to say about adding liquor licenses to Boston’s roster.
Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
“I believe the underserved areas, including many minority ones, should get more licenses. More restaurants would help to bring in and benefit more businesses and provide money to some of the neighborhoods.” – Anonymous reader
“The poorer neighborhoods are struggling. All the licenses are flowing to where the big money is; right now that’s the Seaport, just before that it was Back Bay, and so on. By offering licenses that are dedicated to the areas of the city that need them, we’ll be able to open more viable restaurants and bars in those places.” – Shirley D., Dorchester
“I feel that this bill may help to bring attention and subsequently address the rife inequities that exist in the distribution of these licenses. As we have read these inequities grossly impact communities of color and their efforts to create and cultivate economically viable community oases. Entrepreneurs wishing to invest in these communities should not be deterred by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a private license. The factors that impact one’s ability to secure a license on the private market are directly correlated to principles of fairness and equity. Unequivocally, the uphold of said principles have not been applied or realized in black and brown neighborhoods in the Commonwealth (specifically Boston).” – Izzy L., Dorchester
“I would love to see an increase in licenses but it would be great if the State would create a new program where a percentage of the new licenses would be capped at an accessible price tag. This could help new, small, local entrepreneurs get started.” – Leo N., Nonantum
“There’s no reason why these liquor licenses should be bought/sold on the secondary market for preposterous sums of money – it just allows for big chains to saturate the market and ruin the soul of Boston. Adding more licenses allows for more creativity and local feel by removing the barrier to entry and driving competition” – Matt D., Dorchester
“Boston, also having a young population, is so far behind other major cities in having a vibrant nightlife that includes more than just a glut of coffee shops.” – Michael B., Dorchester
“I live in West Roxbury where I only have four restaurants that serve alcohol within walking distance. All the good restaurants open up across the border in Newton Center or Chestnut Hill, and since our neighborhood is relatively car centric, our main street struggles to draw people in when people can get to these other places in a 10 minute drive. I’m also incensed that the Seaport was allowed to take bars from other neighborhoods around the city. I’m an Irish immigrant and the fact that this 90 year old law is rooted in racism and is debated seriously on Beacon Hill is an embarrassment. They have egg on their face.” – Patrick, West Roxbury
“Boston desperately needs many more small, hip, and creative restaurants and bars in its neighborhoods. It’s shameful that a law from 1933 based on racism still has this much control over our city. It’s the main reason why Boston feels like a soulless, corporate dystopia without any real nightlife. Portland, Providence, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and most other comparable cities are so much more interesting and fun places to be because of their great bars and restaurant scenes.” – Aurelia C., Roslindale
“There just aren’t enough places to go. Everywhere is overrun and packed because there aren’t enough bars and restaurants. And this is a problem in every neighborhood. There are like 3 bars in the South End. The lack of places to drink and eat is insane.” – M.F., Waterfront
“Own a restaurant and liquor license cost us [$]500K in 2020.” – Duane R., Boston
“Since these new licenses aren’t transferable the issue that these will not actually increase real value for these new license holders still exists. They cannot sell them and get a nice payout at the end of a career like so many have been able to do. No half measures. The number of licenses should be tied to population.” – Joseph D., Revere
“Putting liquor licenses in selected/politically-favored zip codes is not going to make people want to go to those locations and dine and drink. Making them safe neighborhoods is a better approach.” – Ric, Dorchester
“Increased access to alcohol and marijuana is not a path to economic development. Improving public safety, education, and public transportation should be the top priorities. Boston would be a better city with fewer bougie restaurants that gouge diners and fewer marijuana dispensaries.” – Kevin, Hyde Park
Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.
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