By John Lynds
Neighbors of Woody’s Liquors on Saratoga Street in Orient Heights are unwilling to support any expansion of John Wood’s business until he cleans up his act and shows he can be a better neighbor.
At an Orient Heights Neighborhood Council meeting (OHNC) Monday night a lawyer for Wood, Daniel Toscano, pitched his client’s plans to expand the liquor store to include a 1,500 sq. ft. convenient store and takeout pizzeria. Toscano said Wood, who had leased the building for the past 14 years but now owns the building outright, plans to make facade improvements which includes taking down unattractive signage and replacing it with an attractive awning and lighting as well as making improvements inside the store to accommodate the convenient store and pizzeria.
While the plans sounded like a move in the right direction for the troubled liquor store, some abutters felt the olive branch extended from Wood to the community was too little too late.
Neighbors from up and down Bayswater Street and St. Andrews Road complained of traffic outside the store, teenagers hanging out at night trying to coax adults into buying them liquor, recent violations selling to minors, litter, a recent robbery at gunpoint and the fact Wood never listened to community’s pleas in the past to improve the facade of the building and signage.
“Now that he wants something from us he wants to do the right thing,” said Mary Berninger. “For 14 years he hasn’t complied with the signage requests from the community but now he wants something so he’s willing to comply.”
One big issue is the electronic billboard sign that serves as Woody’s marquee that is in clear violation of Boston’s zoning codes. The sign was put up when Wood took over ownership of the liquor store 14 years ago. At the time he was only leasing the building.
While Wood never pulled a permit for the sign, he told the community Monday he was unaware it was in violation of zoning codes because he was never cited or asked to remove it.
However, members of the East Boston signage task force, which includes East Boston Main Streets Director Clark Moulaison, said Woody’s was asked to make facade improvements before city fines were levied against the business. The program was started as a way to encourage businesses in violation of zoning codes to make improvements before getting fined.
“No one talked to him?,” said Moulaison. “I guess John Dudley (then Executive Director of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce) and I who contacted him on at least two occasions and visited his place must have been dreaming. Why did he remove the banners if he wasn’t contacted by someone? Violations go to the property owner and he (Wood) contacted me a few times about it. He needed to remove the sign or apply for a permit (for the electronic sign). He was also visited by Boston Inspection Service Department (ISD) and was told he was non compliant.”
Moulaison asked him to clean up the banners located on the building and asked him to find a way to provide some visibility through his windows which would require him to rearrange his interior.
“We have no authority to make agreements on code violations,” said Moulaison. “As far as I know ISD violated his sign because he didn’t apply for a permit. The amount of signage on the building and in the windows exceeded the amount under the Boston sign code. He did remove signs that were on the brick and was told to apply for a permit for the electric sign.”
Wood caused a bit of a stir at the meeting telling neighbors who described the electronic sign as ‘ugly’ that the general consensus on the sign was their ‘opinion’ and that a lot of people like the sign.
One audience member shot back and told Wood that the neighborhood’s opinion should be the only one that counts because they are his customers and abutters.
George Arrigo of St. Andrews Road said he worried about traffic, more litter and more underage kids hanging out at the store if a pizzeria was allowed to go into the location.
“There will be more traffic and more kids hanging out attracted by the pizza,” argued Arrigo. “I already have to deal with finding beer bottles and nips outside my house so what’s going to happen when there’s a pizzeria there.”
Arrigo reminded the OHNC that the group had voted against a plan to locate a Domino’s Pizza right next door to where Woody’s is located. In that case residents said a pizzeria along the already congested stretch of Saratoga Street would lead to more traffic and more parking issues for residents as Domino’s patrons and delivery drivers pulled over to pick up pizza. At the time residents also cited the fact that teenagers were already hanging around Woody’s in attempts to buy booze and the neighborhood was dealing with an epidemic of underage drinking at Constitution Beach and at the Burger King parking lot. Residents feared a pizzeria at the location would further exacerbate the growing problem of late night drinking and fighting among teens that hang down at the beach during the summer if a late-night pizzeria was allowed next door to the liquor store and nearby beach. Domino’s eventually abandoned those plans and moved further down Saratoga Street to the former Belle Isle Connection restaurant without issue.
Some other residents said they would like to see Woody’s improve before it expands citing recent violations for selling to minors.
On March 5, 2010, a Woody’s delivery driver was caught in a sting operation conducted by the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. The driver was caught and arrested for selling beer and liquor to a minor who did not have proper I.D. to prove he was 21-years-old. Woody’s received a six day suspension of its liquor license, of which three of those days are being held in abeyance for a period of two years provided no further violations occur.
While Wood’s attorney said any employees of Mr. Wood caught selling to minors is fired, it did little to quell the crowd from asking Wood to prove he could be a good neighbor first.
OHNC President Tom Bruno recommend to Wood and Toscano that Wood first remove the unattractive signage and do facade improvements to begin proving he is sincere in becoming a better neighbor to the Orient Heights Community. Bruno added that once those improvements are completed, he and Toscano should come back before the community and address any further concerns before an official vote on the proposal is taken.
Wood and Toscano agreed and Wood pledged to immediately take down the electronic marquee to which several residents applauded.