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Controlling the Square

By Michele F. Forman

Beer guzzlers and wine sippers were pressed to the railings of Shay's Wine Bar Cafe and other local hangouts last Satuday night in a scene that has become familiar to denizens of Harvard Square in the past two years.

But under the terms of a home-rule bill being considered by the State Legislature, the weekend crowds that throng the local bars may have to fight a little harder for a table.

The bill would restore the power of the city Licensing Commission to set occupancy limits at establisments which serve alcohol. The City Council passed the measure earlier this fall, and sent it along to the State House for final approval.

Under a current law sponsored by state Rep. William Galvin (D-Boston), capacity limits for bars and restaurants are set by a formula based on the establishments' total floor area.

The result, supporters of the home-rule bill contend, is that many bars are allowed to increase their capacity without taking into account the noise problems and parking shortages large crowds can create.

"Now, judgements on seating capacity are made solely on internal information--square footage and number of exits--not on the area's problems on the outside," said James T. McDavitt, the chair of the city Licensing Commission.

"If 400 people are leaving a restaurant at 2 a.m. and are being rowdy on the streets, the number should be reduced to 250," said McDavitt. "The home-rule bill gives us that power back."

Several establishments in Harvard Square--notably the Boathouse Bar and the Spaghetti Club--have already upped their occupancy limits under the terms of the 1988 law. McDavitt said that he considers the Spaghetti Club's limit of 202 people far too high.

And a cluster of bars around the intersection of Brookline St. and Green St. generate continual complaints from nearby residents, according to City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55, who sponsored the home-rule petition earlier this year.

"In a number of cases the city Licensing Commission has needed the authority to reduce the capacity from the inspected capacity due to noise," said Duehay. "This is a power the Licensing Commission ought to have, in my opinion, in densely populated areas like Cambridge."

But Duehay said that the home-rule bill faces a rocky future because of the political influence wielded by restauranteurs who want to increase business without expanding their facilities.

Such pressure may have played a key part in the passage of Galvin's bill two year's ago, Duehay said. "There are rumors that the owner of the Boathouse Bar was instrumental in getting the '88 bill passed and is equally interested in this home-rule bill."

According to the Boston Business Journal, Boathouse owner Joseph Cimino, Jr. and his family have contributed a total of $5400 to Galvin's campaign for state treasurer this year.

Other nightclub and restaurant interests have also added to Galvin's coffers, including the beer distributor's political action committee and The Massachussetts Restaurant Association, the newspaper said.

Neither Galvin nor Cimino could be reached for comment this week. David Doherty, the general manager of the Cimino-owned Spaghetti Club, said he has noticed no problems caused by the restaurant's crowds.

"If restaurants increased capacity, it may be because they renovated to accomodate more patrons," said Sally R. Alcorn, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Alcorn cited the case of the Hong Kong restaurant on Mass. Ave., which boosted its capacity by 175 seats last year after agreeing to add 12 new parking spaces.

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