Boston’s Liquor License Problem

Last night, PBS showed the first part of Ken Burns’ new documentary, Prohibition. The series, narrated by prominent actors like Tom Hanks and John Lithgow, shows the build up, passage, and consequences of the “Noble Experiment.” Many Americans hoped that the outlawing of booze would usher in a new age of propriety, hard work, and prosperity; instead, it created a perverse black market and unleashed the full power of a violent Mafia. After 13 years, Prohibition was repealed, and the nation rejoiced. States quickly passed laws to restrict the alcohol business, but finally, everyone could get a drink.

Unfortunately, many of those old laws are still on the books. Massachusetts, for example, has the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, an arcane liquor licensing system that was created because the state feared that Boston would descend into unruly Catholic drunkenness. Instead of letting each community decide how many bars and restaurants are appropriate for their area, the ABCC divvies up licenses based on population. As the largest city in the state, Boston has the most liquor licenses, boasting 675 full licenses, and 355 for beer and wine. Nearby cities, such as Cambridge and Somerville, meanwhile, have far less:

That seems reasonable until you realize that some cities, like Boston, surge with extra population daily, from commuters, tourists, and conference-goers — not to mention the number of suburbanites who come into the city for entertainment and dining. This next chart is more relevant, in showing the actual number of residents to apportioned to each full liquor license:

Under the rules of the ABCC, Boston, Somerville, Arlington, and Meford all have a bit more than 900 residents to each liquor license. Cambridge’s rate is far lower: The city only has 688 residents to each liquor license. Why? Because clever Cambridge got an exception from the ABCC board, allowing the community to distribute as many licenses as they see fit. Cambridge has decided that awarding more licenses than the ABCC typically allows is good for business — and the last time we checked, the city hadn’t descended into debauchery. Instead, it’s home to a thriving, adventurous restaurant scene.

To be fair, Governor Deval Patrick, with the support of Mayor Thomas Menino, tried to grant Boston an exception earlier in the year, but that bill still hasn’t passed. A little over a week ago, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curatone also called for an exception for his community. For both Boston and Somerville, the problem is clear: Until they can increase the number of restaurant licenses, Cambridge will keep eating — and drinking — their lunches.

Which brings us back to the restrictive system of the ABCC and the perverse economy it’s created; it’s not Prohibition, but shenanigans abound. State senator Dianne Wilkerson and city councilman Chuck Turner were both convicted on bribery charges related to liquor licensing. Liquor licenses are now sold in Boston for up to $450,000, a sum that prices out independent restaurants and assures that most of the new eateries we’ll see are backed by big-time investors or corporations. We have nothing against Legal Sea Foods — the new Harborside restaurant is stunning — but it’s a behemoth, not a new neighborhood restaurant. Meanwhile, Steve Grossman, the state treasurer and head of the ABCC board, will continue to collect obscene sums of money from the liquor lobby. Last week, everyone flipped out when the Boston Globe reported that Grossman hauled in $45,000 at a fundraising party thrown by Stephen V. Miller, the powerful liquor lawyer (and subject of a 2009 profile in Boston magazine), and Ralph Kaplan, the owner of Kappy’s Liquor. That sum counted as almost a quarter of Grossman’s total fundraising since he took office in January.

People decried the conflict of interest — Grossman is collecting money from the very people he’s supposed to be regulating — but really: Why the hell is everyone so surprised? The ABCC is a relic. Let’s leave it in the dustpan of history — just like Prohibition.