North End restaurateurs are furious about having to pay a $7,500 flat fee plus $450 to $500 per month per parking space to setup outdoor dining in the street this year. They are furious that restaurateurs in other neighborhoods will not pay the same fees. They are furious and they are wrong. The city should charge all businesses to use public space, but I suspect their fury stems from how the city otherwise values this land.
Like many cities, Boston also regulates public space by granting parking permits to residents to store their private cars on public streets. Boston does not charge for this privilege and does not cap the number of permits per household. The result is that far more people have resident parking permits than exist on-street spaces in neighborhoods like the North End. In 2015, the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council calculated that households had 4,000 resident parking permits for just 1,500 on-street parking spaces. Most of the North End, including the restaurant heavy streets of Hanover and Salem also do not have any metered parking, meaning a lucky few get to park for free in designated visitor spaces.
Reallocating 130 of these on-street spaces to outdoor dining does not create the neighborhood’s parking problem. Residents responding to the incentives established by the city create the problem. A Boston Globe article from 2015 quoted a resident who had as many as six vehicles registered to her North End home and parked all of them on the street for free. She is an outlier as only one percent of North End households had three or more vehicles according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. However, the city has catered to the just over half of households that do own a car and the visitors who drive to the neighborhood despite its abundance of alternatives, including walking and transit.
Before outdoor dining began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city dedicated nearly three-quarters of the public space on Hanover Street to cars, including two parking lanes and two travel lanes. Pedestrians squeezed into the remaining 15-ft. of sidewalks obstructed by sandwich board signs, light poles, utility boxes, and other pedestrians. In such a walkable and transit accessible neighborhood, the allocation of space was egregious. Twice weekly, pedestrians had to also contend with piles of residential trash dumped haphazardly on the sidewalks and left overnight for morning collection. The pandemic upended the dominance of cars by carving out some space for dining instead of free parking.
Some residents with cars fought back and the city now rents replacement parking spaces in nearby garages and allowing residents to use those spaces for free. This decision granted the lucky early respondents guaranteed parking spaces when previously their residential parking permit only guaranteed them a chance at one of the too few spaces for too many cars with parking permits. The $450 to $500 charge per space that North End restaurateurs will pay this summer covers the cost of these garage spaces. That cost reveals the approximate value of the on-street spaces that the city has long given away for free.
In 2019, when then City Councilor Wu looked at the issue, she proposed a $25 fee to get a residential parking permit, with the fee increasing by $25 for each additional car. For a household with one car that currently pays $0 per day to store their vehicle 24/7 on public space, they would have to pay less than 7 cents per day. Since parking is the third rail of local politics, the idea died quietly and residents have continued to park for free. However, the cost the restaurants will pay to replace the on-street spaces in garages shows that the $25 fee was much too low. In the North End Garage at 600 Commercial Street the monthly rate is $390 or $4,680 per year and equal to about $13 per day. For the five-month season, restaurateurs will pay $1,950 per month for outdoor dining in one parking space, also about $65 per day.
Aside from the monthly rent paid to nearby garages, the city will spend the money raised from the permitting directly on the North End. This arrangement follows a similar principle to the parking benefit district detailed by UCLA professor Donald Shoup in his book The High Cost of Free Parking. Essentially, Shoup argues that we should charge for parking, but that the fees should go directly to support the immediate neighborhood. Boston should use this pivot to charging restaurants for occupying public space to also begin charging residents and visitors to store their cars in public space.
The North End is a wonderful neighborhood. When I lived there for three years ending in August 2020, I enjoyed the easy access to just about everything I needed, from the grocery store to the bank, dentist, doctor, pharmacy, parks, and yes, restaurants. However, Boston can greatly improve the quality of life in the neighborhood for the nearly half of households who do not own a car and even ultimately for those that do, by rethinking how the city allocates the extremely valuable public space in the neighborhood. A Shoupian parking benefit district, with allowances for low-income and fixed-income households, coupled with the outdoor dining charge could fund:
- Permanent extensions to make the neighborhood’s many tight sidewalks ADA compliant,
- New street trees to compensate for the neighborhood’s woefully inadequate tree canopy,
- A 21st century trash collection system modeled after the European and handful of American cities that replace some parking spaces with bins and vaults for household trash, and
- Permanent pedestrianization of individual streets where already pedestrians greatly outnumber vehicles.
I understand that this change would be profoundly difficult. Car owners will vociferously defend their perceived right to free parking. However, as Boston University researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer found in their book Neighborhood Defenders, the people who show up to public meetings are most often older, relatively wealthier homeowners. As members of the North End Waterfront Residents Association (NEWRA), my partner and I were the only late 20-somethings in a group where the next members were at least 20 years our senior. NEWRA frequently petitioned the city on neighborhood issues and especially proposed construction, with the views of our older peers often diverging and winning out relative to our own.
Based on the attendees at a NEWRA meeting, you would be surprised to discover that nearly two-thirds of North End residents are 34 years old or younger. Almost 80 percent of North End residents rent their homes. I suspect that if the city polled these underrepresented groups today then they would discover support to start valuing public space and reinvesting in the neighborhood.
 References to the U.S. Census American Community Survey are from the 2020 Five-Year Estimates for Census Tracts 301, 302, 304, and 305 for Suffolk County, which encompass the North End.