The Ordinance Committee held a public hearing on October 13, 2011 beginning at five o'clock and ten minutes P.M. in Ballroom B of the Senior Center. The purpose of the hearing was to consider a petition submitted by the City Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance in Section 20.200 et seq., the Central Square Overlay District, by deleting Section 20.304.5.6, which currently requires all establishments where liquor is served to have their principal public entrance on Massachusetts Avenue or Main Street (Attachment A).
Present at the hearing were Councillor Sam Seidel, Chair of the Committee, Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis, Councillor Leland Cheung, Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, Councillor Craig Kelley, Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves, and City Clerk D. Margaret Drury. Also present were Stuart Dash, Director of Community and Neighborhood Planning, Community Development Department (CDD) and Jeffrey Roberts, Neighborhood Planner, CDD.
Councillor Seidel convened the hearing and explained the purpose. He requested that CDD staff describe the petition. Mr. Dash introduced Mr. Roberts to provide the description. Mr. Roberts submitted a memorandum that CDD had prepared for the Planning Board on this petition (Attachment B) and summarized the main points. Mr. Roberts noted that the language was added in 1989 as part of the creation of the Central Square Overlay District. The intent was to prevent bar and nightclub activity from being located near residential areas. Bars and nightclubs are allowed uses in all bushiness-zoned portions of the Central Square Overlay District. Removing the restrictions on entrance locations would effectively allow bars and nightclubs entrances in most portions of the district, including along streets that are adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
In the memorandum CDD staff suggests consideration of alternative approaches that might achieve the goal of expanding the allowed areas while addressing concerns about adjacency. Possible alternatives could include selecting a few streets not adjacent to residential areas, requiring a specified distance from residential uses, or requiring a special permit with criteria that include distance from residential uses.
Councillor Seidel invited questions and comments from committee members.
Vice Mayor Davis said that she has had many complaints in the past from residents who lived near TT The Bear's Place, which opened onto Brookline Street. Regarding the CDD suggestion that 100 foot distance from residential uses could be an alternative, she said that 100 feet is only two house lots - nothing close to a distance that could protect neighbors from the late night noise. She added that perhaps the best idea should be a case by case basis, through the special permit approach. Vice Mayor Davis said that she has also heard from residents of other parts of the City who were concerned that this might happen in other parts of the City.
Councillor Reeves said that the history of limitation is that they have not always been based on logic but rather on just how everything has always been. The depth of the anguish over noise from nightclubs is often not there. He gave an example of how the main complainant about the Man Ray Nightclub was given a job there and all complaints ceased. He has no recollection of complaints from residents of the apartments about noise from bars and restaurants in Central Square. There are already some Central Square establishments with entrances on streets other than Massachusetts Avenue, for example, TT The Bear's and the Green Street Grill. He added that if Kendall had food and drink options open until 1-2 a.m., it could go far toward solving the Kendall Square nighttime dearth of activity.
Councillor Kelley said that he is not anxious for nightlife in Central Square. One of the issues with entrances is that people come out to smoke. He is not eager to expand this phenomenon. He would not want to see it expanded by special permit; he would want defined standards and conditions.
Councillor Seidel asked about the general notion of deepening the Massachusetts Avenue character. Mr. Dash said that staff had a variety of opinions, especially with regard to different areas with different characteristics. The areas closest to Central Square are somewhat active already.
Councillor Reeves said that among the members of the Red Ribbon Commission, an emerging theme is that Central Square has everything, what we need is amplification.
Bishop Allen Drive is more residential, but there is the Elks Hall which does not seem to be a major source of complaints. It is the Massachusetts Avenue restriction that is not logical. Councillor Decker asked the committee to think about what the neighborhood would look like if there were bars on Bishop Allen Drive.
Councillor Reeves said that part of the motivation for this petition is the potential for a restaurant and bar at the old CCTV location at the corner of Prospect Street and Bishop Allen Drive.
Councillor Decker said that she lived on Bishop Allen Drive, not far from the Elks Club. There was lots of noise that bothered neighbors. She asked what kind of outreach has been done to the neighbors and residents of the petition area. She added that she would want to know that residents were really engaged before any such change, and not just by a notice of a zoning hearing.
Councillor Reeves said that on 17th Street in Washington DC, there are several of these late night restaurants. Some neighbors are now saying perhaps there are enough and there should not be more. He would support piloting and monitoring such a program. Councillor Reeves added that one of the members of the Red Ribbon report has a specialty in the area of entertainment zoning.
Councillor Seidel said he is open to entertaining the notion, but the neighborhood and resident issues are very important. He looks forward to the Red Ribbon Commission Report to give us more to work with regarding the issue.
Councillor Seidel then invited public comment.
George Metzger, President of the Central Square Business Association and a resident of 90 Antrim Street, stated that the business association wholeheartedly supports reviewing this situation. The map is somewhat confusing; the Middle East is down on Pearl Street. The India Pavilion has a liquor license and is not on the map. He stated that perhaps they could agree very quickly on certain areas as more appropriate. There are currently inconsistencies. He would also like to see more flexibility in planning and recognition that in a mixed use district there really is no hard line.
Gary Mello, 324 Franklin Street, urged that the City Council deny the petition. He said that he assumes this discussion is happening because someone has a project and wants this change. He does not believe that the expansion of liquor licenses is a benefit to the neighborhood.
Mark Shulman, 85 Windsor Street, stated that he operates the All Asia, and is working on a project on Prospect Street across from the Fields Restaurant and Bar.
Robert Winters, 366 Broadway, said that if the petition were passed in its current form, it would be a colossal error. But some expansion is acceptable, for example Prospect Street. He agrees with promoting side street and back street uses in Central Square, e.g., a comic book store. Restaurants with pouring licenses are also fine. But wholesale expansion of Central Square as a bar and nightlife district would be a mistake.
Adam Frye, part time resident of 36 Pearl Street, said that her Pearl Street residence is across from the street from the bar and patrons come and sit on her stoop and make noise. She agrees with the previous speaker about the type of expansion that should be encouraged. Art galleries on the side streets would be great.
Councillor Reeves said that people around the world enjoy themselves at late night establishments around residential neighborhoods.
Councillor Seidel said that more discussion and outreach to neighbors is needed.
Councillor Decker asked CDD if they were expecting to do a huge outreach projects in the next few weeks. Mr. Murphy answered in the negative and said that is why they offered other suggestions which would be more limited in scope and effect.
Councillor Decker said that the All Asia project should happen, that makes sense. But more outreach and discussion is needed before major changes are made. Councillor Reeves said that it is not that easy to get a whole lot of people to come to meetings.
Councillor Cheung said that he appreciates Councillor Reeve's attempts to focus on what Central Square could be. He asked whether holding the petition in committee would prevent CDD from doing more work on the issue. Councillor Seidel responded in the negative. As long as the Council wants to pursue the issue CDD will be willing to provide technical assistance.
Councillor Decker asked whether keeping the petition in committee would hinder All Asia from going forward. The answer was yes. She asked whether there is something else that can be done so as to not be an obstacle. Council Seidel said that he assumes that the model they are working on was based on what the existing zoning is.
Councillor Reeves moved that the petition remain in committee. The motion passed on a voice vote without objection.
Councillors Seidel thanked those present for their participation. The hearing was adjourned at six o'clock and fifteen minutes p.m.
For the Committee,
Councillor Sam Seidel, Chair