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Boston City Council votes to lift cap on liquor licenses

Yawu Miller | 12/24/2013, 6 a.m.

In a move aimed at increasing the number of restaurants in the city’s neighborhoods, the City Council approved a measure last week to lift the cap on liquor licenses in Boston.

The measure, approved 12-1, is a home rule petition to reverse a law that caps the number of liquor licenses the city can issue. To become law, it must first be signed by the mayor, then go to a vote in the Legislature.

The measure would only apply to restaurants, not bars or package stores.

At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has been building support for the measure for the last two years, says issuing more liquor licenses will help spread economic development to the city’s neighborhoods.

“Restaurants make most of their profits off selling drinks, not food,” she noted. “Liquor licenses greatly increase the likelihood that a restaurant will be successful.”

Currently, liquor licenses in Boston routinely sell for between $350,000 and $500,000, making them unattainable for many startup entrepreneurs, Pressley says. The high cost of the licenses has put many small-time neighborhood establishments at a disadvantage.

“There are 99 liquor licenses in the North End, but in Mattapan there are only nine,” Pressley says. “In Roxbury, there are 26, and 17 of those are for liquor stores. That speaks to the heart of the disparity.”

Upham’s Corner Main Streets Executive Director Max McCarthy says increasing the number of liquor licenses would help stimulate business in the Dorchester neighborhood.

“We’re trying to support the Strand Theatre as a destination,” he said. “You have to have restaurants to anchor that. We know restaurants rely on beer and wine sales. Not having a liquor license is a barrier to entry.”

Pressley spoke to main streets associations and business groups to get input into the measure and build support. The Future Boston Alliance was an early supporter of the move.

“We don’t have places in neighborhoods where you can grab a drink and talk to your fellow man,” said Future Boston Alliance Executive Director Malia Lazu. “We’re really excited about shifting away from this false economy of liquor licenses costing $500,000.”

The measure met with little resistance in the Council Chamber. District 2 Councilor Bill Linehan was the only no vote. In order to become law, the home rule petition must be signed by the mayor, then move on to the Legislature for a vote.

Pressley says she’s had no assurances of a yes vote from Mayor Thomas Menino, but is optimistic.

“I’ve been encouraged by my conversations with the mayor,” she said. “I hope to earn his vote.”

The state’s control of liquor licenses, which dates back to the 1930s, is not limited to Boston. Many smaller cities in Massachusetts are also supportive of returning licenses to local control, according to Lazu.

“Most gateway cities have the same problem we have in Boston,” she said. “We hope that Boston can be a leader.”

Pressley says her conversations with legislators on the home rule petition have been positive.

“There’s an appetite for change,” she said.