Boston granting relief to businesses that pay rent to city

Thousands of dollars in payments being waived or deferred because of pandemic

WITH THE PANDEMIC shutdown wreaking havoc on hundreds of businesses across Boston, city officials are stepping up to provide relief to one group of enterprises with a direct tie to municipal government.

Between businesses housed in city-owned buildings and those that operate on property owned by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, dozens of businesses pay rent to the city or to its development agency — and they are getting big breaks from their landlord.

City officials have suspended all rent payments from tenants in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury, which houses the School Department administrative offices. These include Recreo Coffee, Dudley Café, the Soleil Restaurant, the Final Touch Boutique, Gallery Eye Care, and the Roxbury Innovation Center. Two food outlets that operate in City Hall got the same deal.

Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) officials have also granted rent forgiveness to a number of businesses located entirely or in part on land owned by the quasi-public city development authority. The roster includes the Chart House restaurant ($80,625 in forgiven rent payments), CityView Trolley Tours ($71,950 in forgiven rent) and the New England Aquarium ($19,996 in forgiven rent). BPDA has also deferred the rent for a variety of other tenants, including the Ecco Beauty Hair Salon in Chinatown for April, May, and June ($6,180), with repayment to be spread over the six years remaining on the salon’s lease beginning in January 2021.

One prominent leaseholder catching a break from the city is the operator of the iconic Swan Boats, which draw thousands of visitors each summer to the lagoon in the Public Garden. Lyn Paget, whose family has operated the boats since the 1880s, has decided not to launch the pedal-powered fleet at all this year.

Paget persuaded the Boston Parks and Recreation Department to invoke the force majeure provision of her lease, which allows its terms to be voided in the event of extraordinary circumstances. The department agreed, relieving Paget of the $5,000 annual flat fee the city collects from the Swan Boats. (In normal times, the city also takes in in 2.75 percent of ticket sales plus 5 percent of souvenir sales.) 

Officials at the parks department also informed the 14 seasonal pushcart vendors who operate at 30 locations on the Boston Common that they don’t have to pay any rent for the last two weeks of June and the entire month of July, resulting in a savings of about $4,600 for each location.

Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for Mayor Marty Walsh, said the decision to waive rent payments was in keeping with the mayor’s effort to support small entrepreneurs by “recognizing the financial impact on small businesses across every industry of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

City parks officials also granted a rent concession to the Earl of Sandwich restaurant chain, which runs a walk-up food stand out of a 1920s renovated stone building on the Common. They waived $12,500 of the company’s annual $50,000 rent, and deferred the remaining $37,500, which is to be paid in three equal installments of $12,500 in August, October, and December of this year. Normally, the $50,000 annual rent is paid in a lump sum.

The Earl of Sandwich chain had its sights set on securing a much better break from the city — in April, the company asked to have its entire $50,000 rent waived for 2020.

“To be candid, this pandemic has been a gut punch for us, with sales down 90 percent company-wide,” the chain’s corporate attorney, Jonathan Morris, wrote to Dorothy Baxter, the head of business operations for the parks department.

“We have had to lay off 70 percent of our hourly workforce [and] we have had steep pay cuts corporate-wide,” Morris wrote. He noted that the restaurant chain’s takeout and delivery numbers have essentially only covered the cost of labor. “With no cash reserves, this threatens the survivability of the company,” Morris told the city. “Right now we are depending on the kindness of strangers to help us weather this storm.”

The city’s financial kindness did not go beyond the initial $12,500 discount of the company’s seasonal rent, but the Earl did get something extra that was not in its lease. As part of an effort to pump up its poor revenue numbers on the Common, the company is being allowed to sell Bertucci’s pizza this year as part of a separate installation in the area where customers dine al fresco. Bertucci’s is part of the Earl of Sandwich’s corporate organization.

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The company headquarters did not respond to inquiries asking if it had sought help from the federal pandemic-related financial assistance programs funded by Congress.

The Earl of Sandwich, which touts having “The World’s Greatest Hot Sandwich,” has been struggling to survive at its Boston Common location — a converted men’s “comfort station” — since it first opened in 2013. In those seven years, the operation has lost a total of $1.5 million, according to 2019 financial records it recently submitted to the city as a requirement of its 15-year lease, with no profitable year during that span.