Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
The city’s Late Night Task Force is serious about having a good time.
It has been some time since John Winthrop envisioned Boston as the city upon a hill, but the ghosts of Puritans past still stalk the city’s liquor, restaurant, and nightlife laws. There’s no happy hour. Open bars are illegal. Restaurant liquor licenses are few and far between, and those that do have them often can’t serve food or drink past 10 or 11 p.m. Bars close at 2 a.m. at the latest. Patrons can’t have a tipple on an outdoor patio without ordering food, too. And late-night T service, initiated in 2014, is probably about to go the way of the dodo.
But Boston mayor Marty Walsh is a doer, which is why his office put together a 24-person Late Night Task Force in spring 2014—not coincidentally, just around the time the T began its “weekends ‘til 3 a.m.” pilot project. “[W]e have an opportunity here to create the kind of nightlife that visitors expect in a world-class city,” Walsh said in a statement at the time. Armed with strong support from the mayor’s office, the group of restaurant, gym and bar owners, labor advocates, law enforcement officials, musicians, and, yes, students, came together to plan a series of data-driven trial projects that would test out the effects of a later bar closing time on businesses adjacent to T stations.
Good times are good for good’s sake, but there’s a powerful economic argument behind the mayor’s push, too. An example: a report from the San Francisco Office of the Controller found that nightlife generated $4.2 billion in spending in 2010. Though most of the people who enjoy that city’s restaurants, bars, and music venues are local, more than half of that $4.2 billion comes from visitors’ wallets. A 2004 report commissioned by the New York Nightlife Association found that clubs and bars alone generate $9.7 billion annually for the city. The research data firm IBISWorld estimates that American bars and nightclubs took in $26 billion in 2015. Good times are also big business.
In July, Boston lawmakers nixed an amendment that would have allowed bars to stay open until 4 a.m., on the grounds that the proposal could up drunk driving and create too much noise. But as the Harvard economist and Boston Globe columnist Edward Glaeser pointed out after turning to the data last spring, Boston’s liquor licenses are associated with reported crimes, “but not strongly enough for us to have much confidence about how much crime will rise if bars stay open later.”
Boston’s Late Night Task Force is undeterred! On Wednesday, the group released a new, seven-step set of recommendations to make Boston the capital of fun.
1) The task force is giving its main point another go: it’s recommending that the city extend liquor license hours, but only within the designated downtown areas, not residential ones, and only after the proper hearing.
2) Allow all restaurants that currently hold licenses limiting their hours to 10 or 11 p.m. to stay open until midnight, again with the proper hearing and community process.
3) Launch pilot projects through the Boston downtown to extend liquor license hours. The task force notes that this option would require legislative action.
A smoother partying process
4) Let restaurants serve drinks on their patios without also serving food. Drinking wine outside for all! (After the proper hearing, of course.)
5) Make it easier for businesses to renew their certificates of inspection, and automatically schedule inspections with city officials to cut down on back-and-forth wrangling.
6) Streamline licensing process to get rid of redundancies and busywork.
7) Allow live entertainment (including musical acts) to play on outdoor patios later into the night, provided local residents don’t complain about the noise.
Rory Cuddyer, a task force member and city aide, told the Boston Globe that the group “thought this was an opportunity for us to signal that late night does not have to mean just rowdy college kids hanging out.”
But Roger Berkowitz, the president and chief executive officer of the New England stalwart Legal Sea Foods, told the Globe he was a bit more wary. “People applying for that should have a proven track record with the normal hours of operations,” he said. “I think you are asking for problems if [restaurants] do not have the appropriate experience. ...It safeguards the public.”
And a note on that T crisis: The Late Night Task Force said it operated on the assumption that public transit service would continue. MBTA may be in the midst of a serious budget crisis after the private industry support from the restaurant, hotel, and entertainment sectors failed to appear. But Boston will be so much less fun if the T closes up late-night shop.