Future Uncertain for Villa Mexico After City Denies Zoning Request

The owners of Villa Mexico Café are uncertain of the Mexican restaurant’s future after the city effectively blocked its proposed move to 12 Grove St. last week.

“We have no next steps, no leads, so it’s back to the drawing board,” said Betsy King, who operates the small take-out restaurant with her mother Julie. “Beacon Hill doesn’t allow food trucks, and we have no other options in the neighborhood…although people have approached us about spaces in Cambridge and Somerville.”

The Zoning Board of Appeals voted Tuesday to deny the applicant’s request for the zoning relief to open a 400 square-foot take-out restaurant at 12 Grove St., around 80 feet from Villa Mexico’s current location in Grampy’s gas station at 296 Cambridge St. (The restaurant is soon slated to lose its home of the last six years when the site is redeveloped into office buildings).

While the proposed storefront at 12 Grove St. is within a residential district between Cambridge and Phillips streets, the street-level space was last home to a barbershop more than 15 years ago. Its legal non-conforming commercial use lapsed after two years of non-use, however, and now requires zoning relief to revert back to commercial usage.

Besides the Mayor’s Office and City Councilors at-Large Ayanna Pressley, John Connolly and Stephen Murphy, the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) opposed the application at Tuesday’s hearing. (City Councilor Mike Ross was the sole elected official who went on record to support it, with provisions to minimize impacts on the neighborhood).

“To oppose the relocation of Villa Mexico to 12 Grove Street was a difficult decision for us,” BHCA Executive Director Suzanne Besser wrote in an e-mail to the Times, following the Zoning Board’s ruling. “In the end, the decision was based not just on our standing policy against conversion of residential properties to commercial use, but on the significant concerns expressed by many Grove Street residents (including immediate abutters) who had contacted us about the proposal.”

Besser emphasized that the Civic Association’s position was based entirely on the zoning code and not reflective of Villa Mexico, which she described as a “valued part of our community for several years, providing hospitality and delicious food to residents and local workers.”

“The basic issue before the Board of Appeals was not about Villa Mexico or any other tenant for that matter – it was a zoning issue,” Besser wrote. “Many individuals and families have purchased properties and established homes on the street with the understanding that its residential character is protected by the zoning code. We felt that this understanding should be respected in this situation, particularly because the property does not meet any of the conditions required for a variance as stated in the code.”

Besser added, “We hope [Villa Mexico] will find a new home in commercial premises somewhere on or near Beacon Hill, and we welcome the opportunity to help its owner in her search.”

Meanwhile, Betsy King expressed her gratitude to those who spoke in support of the Villa Mexico at the hearing, as well as for the numerous encouraging phone calls and e-mails she and her mother have received since last Tuesday.

“We are happy to receive such amazing support from the food community,” Betsy King said. “We’re touched and just so thankful to our customers. Thank you, truly, because we do this for you.”

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