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After backlash, Mayor Wu details flexibility for North End outdoor dining fee

"I believe we can come to a situation this summer where our community members ... are all thriving."

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Mayor Michelle Wu prepares to speak at a recent Boston City Council meeting. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe
Patio season

Facing backlash from restaurateurs, Mayor Michelle Wu on Tuesday formally announced flexible parameters for how the city will charge North End restaurants seeking to open outdoor dining spaces this year.

The accommodations, which Wu first mentioned during an interview on WBUR on Monday, will allow restaurants the ability to pay the new $7,500 fee in installments.

Fees can be tailored to reflect operating schedules, so that restaurants who do not want to open outdoor space for the entire season will only pay for when they open outside.

Additionally, the city will introduce a “hardship waiver process,” which will take into account factors on a case-by-case basis, such as the restaurant’s location, patio size, and whether the restaurant owns a liquor license, she said.

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Establishments that are granted waivers will pay reduced fees of possibly either $3,500 or $5,000, depending on a potential tier system officials are considering, Wu said at a press conference.

“I believe we can come to a situation this summer where our community members — which includes our residents and our restaurant owners — are all thriving,” Wu said, standing alongside a few of those restaurant owners at City Hall. “We need the resources to do that.”

The announcements come as North End restaurateurs have organized and some have threatened to sue the city over the new charge, which was unveiled earlier this month.

The owners have been frustrated by the cost, and by the fact they alone are bearing it: Restaurants in no other part of the city will face such a price to take part in this year’s outdoor dining program.

But city officials have said the impact of the North End’s outdoor dining season — which boasted nearly 80 patios last year within its 0.2 square miles — on the surrounding neighborhood is unparalleled.

The narrow streets have created traffic and congestion issues and parking problems, while noise, trash, and rodents have impeded the quality of life of residents, they’ve said.

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The fee was introduced to offset the impact of those problems, with money collected from the payments to be spent on programs solely benefitting the North End, officials said.

Wu maintained on Tuesday it is necessary for the city to handle outdoor dining in the North End differently than in other areas of the city.

She compared the approach to how various city services operate differently in different neighborhoods, from trash pickup to language access.

“This is a discretionary permit that the City of Boston gives. It comes from our Public Works Department, so it’s very much based on what the conditions are for safety and walkability and accessibility,” Wu said. “That is very, very unique when it comes to the conditions in the North End.”

Democratic State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, whose district includes the neighborhood, thanked Wu for recognizing that “one size does not fit all in the North End.”

“Not having outdoor dining would put our restaurants at a disadvantage for the rest of Boston, but not having the proper mitigation for what is still a pilot program will make this unworkable for the residents of the North End, as it was last year,” Michlewitz said.

Restaurant owners have rallied against the measure in recent days, with some describing the move as discrimination and a few threatening a lawsuit against City Hall.

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Last week, in a letter, Wu wrote she is prepared to end all outdoor dining in the North End if “a critical mass of restaurant owners also believe this program is unworkable.”

The mayor reiterated that stance on WBUR on Monday, but said she believes most people in the North End are “on the same page” — a notion she echoed on Tuesday.

“I do want to say that I have learned a lot and I’m still learning in this job about how we can make sure that each and every one of you feel heard and respected and included in all of our processes,” Wu said. “And we’re going to keep working to get better at that as we go.”

Two restaurant owners spoke alongside Wu, including Philip Frattaroli, CEO of Filmark Hospitality Group, who thanked the mayor for bringing restaurant owners together with city leaders.

“She gathered a group of us who didn’t agree and listened to our concerns, responded to them, and helped us all get to where we need to be,” Frattaroli said. “Thank you for your leadership. I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Nick Varano, owner of the Varano Group, which owns several restaurants, emphasized the need to find resolutions that work, especially for local residents.

“Whether we agree or disagree on certain things, it’s OK as long as we do what’s best for the neighborhood,” he said.

“I believe if we can come together and figure this out this year, we can have this for a longer time. We can have this for the years to come,” Varano added. “If we don’t, it’s going to be something that’s lost — and we shouldn’t lose it. We should all work together.”

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Wu said there appears to be a “critical mass of restaurant owners who believe this can work.”

“I think we’re standing here today with many members of our restaurant community who understand and have said that they share the city’s goal to make sure that the quality of life for residents is paramount in any program the City of Boston puts out,” Wu said.

But not all restaurateurs felt they have reached common ground with City Hall.

Outside the press conference, some restaurant owners were upset they were not allowed to attend the event, according to a video posted on Twitter by WCVB reporter Peter Eliopoulos.

Eliopoulos reported the group was not able to enter due to capacity restrictions.

“We are the businesses and we would like to be included … We would like to be heard,” one owner said in the clip. “It’s that simple.”

Wu responded to the scene on Twitter, saying that some people in the crowd are the same individuals who have protested outside her house.

The morning demonstrations that started over the city’s COVID-19 mandates have become a regular occurrence outside Wu’s Roslindale home since January.

“Let’s be clear,” Wu wrote in one tweet. “We will not normalize harassment as acceptable behavior. When members of this group have taken part in the yelling outside my house, bullied City staff & fellow restaurant owners—there is no right to get inside & shout down a press conference too.”

In another tweet, Wu added: “The City hosted multiple public meetings on this open to everyone over the last few months. That’s how to shape policy decisions, NOT by teaming up with antivax protesters finding every opportunity to harass people.”

Later on Tuesday, several restaurant owners appeared at a press conference of their own, making clear they remain opposed to paying any fee at all.

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One individual held a sign reading, “Stop North End Extortion,” with a color scheme reminiscent of the Italian flag.

Watch the full press conference:

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