The Boston City Council tomorrow considers asking the state legislature for 12 new liquor licenses for the South Bay Town Center project in Dorchester and 3 for the Seaport Square complex in the South Boston Waterfront.
Proponents of both developments say 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, said 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 said.
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, but not South Boston. 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. The board also rejected a Waterfront liquor-license request, saying the area was already saturated with places to get a drink.
Both the legislature and Gov. Baker would have to agree to the additional licenses, which would then be doled out by the licensing board. Propoonents say the licenses would be geographically limited to the projects - 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.
Councilors Frank Baker (Dorchester) and Bill Linehan (South Boston) filed the proposal to seek more licenses for the two projects. At a hearing today in advance of tomorrow's council meeting, some councilors said they had no problems seeking licenses for the South Bay project, because it would help spur the development of 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.
But even City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a South Boston resident, questioned the need to try to get three liquor licenses for the giant Seaport Square project in the middle of one of the state's most booming areas.
"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 Seaport Square.
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.
Tsipis said WS could simply stick more home-goods stores in the spaces tentatively set aside for restaurants, but said this would defeat part of the reason to have local restaurants in the project to begin with - to create a sort of new neighborhood center where people want to come even if they're not headed for the cineplex, bowling alley or fitness center also planned for the site. And he said local restaurants would prove a boon to the local food economy because new chefs these days want everything to be fresh and local - like buying hot sauce from Dorchester, pastries from Jamaica Plain or seafood fresh from the Fish Pier.
Dumont made a similar argument for the dozen licenses he'd like to get. Large-scale retail deelopment these days is no longer just about having a bunch of national chains and a food court - people want a complete mixed-use neighborhood - both South Bay and Seaport Square will also have residential buildings or floors - and that means having to include local shops and eateries, he said.
Dumont acknoweldged that, due to construction costs in Boston these days, his company would have to charge higher rents to entrpreneurial 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.
Also making an appearance at the hearing: Two officials from the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which wants the council to add in a request for a dedicated license for its Lawn on D park.
The council's regular meeting begins at noon in its fifth-floor chambers in City Hall.