(Stewart Bishop photo for boston.com)
Tucked away inside a gas station on the edge of Beacon Hill, Julie and Bessie King stand behind the counter of the Villa Mexico Cafe and ponder their future.
For more than two years, a plan has been in the works to demolish the building that houses the mother and daughter’s cafe, as well as Grampy’s gas station, and replace them with a five-story building with street-level retail space and four upper floors of office space.
Julie, who warmly calls regulars and new customers alike “my friend,” said they soldier on despite the uncertainty.
“We don’t exactly know when it’s going to happen,” she said. “I wish I could stay in the area. I love my neighbors and I love the neighborhood.”
The man behind the project is developer Charles Talanian, of C. Talanian Realty Co., who is known for his many properties on Newbury Street. Talanian said he has intended to develop the site at 290 Cambridge St. for some time, but his plans suffered a setback when the economy faltered and obtaining proper financing became extremely difficult.
“With the economy the way it is, banks aren’t lending,” Talanian said.
He said he has all the necessary permits in place and is now waiting to secure tenants for the future building before beginning construction.
Julie King said despite her desire to stay in Beacon Hill, high rents in the area will make it extremely difficult.
The limbo for King and Talanian alike plays out against a backdrop of a street that has seen a number of businesses close recently, despite being in what looks like a prime urban location. Mikes Movies, Discoveries Plus II hair salon, and the White Hen Pantry have also closed in recent months.
Suzanne Besser, executive director of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, said she is troubled by the glut of vacancies on Cambridge Street, but remains dedicated to making sure any new businesses a proper fit for the neighborhood.
“It is unusual and we’re very concerned about it here,” Besser said of the vacancies. “There are a growing number of residents getting together with us and talking about what they would like to see there.”
In another one of Talanian’s properties, the space formerly occupied by the Spotted Apron Bakery has sat vacant for about two years, Talanian said, while he has tried to bring in a new tenant that would sit well with the neighbors.
“I get more calls on that vacancy than in all my signs on Newbury Street,” Talanian said. “It’s a good building, great location. It’s on Cambridge Street and near Charles Street, close to the subway with MGH right across the street; it should be a great spot. The problem is getting the right fit over there.''
Earlier this month, the BHCA’s zoning and licensing committee voted to oppose a proposed restaurant in the space, arguing it would have turned out to be more of a bar than a restaurant.
The BHCA has a history of opposing new liquor licenses in the neighborhood, and is keenly sensitive to residents' complaints about late-night noise. While the city has final authority, the politically powerful BHCA has a long history of protecting the historic and residential character of he neighborhood.
“Residents have been pushing hard to make that it be a true restaurant and not a bar,” said Tom Clemens, chairman of the BHCA licensing and zoning committee.
Clemens said despite the association’s concerns, they are committed to filling vacancies on Cambridge Street.
“Vacancies are unproductive in terms of taxes for he city, unproductive in terms of jobs, and in terms of amenities for the neighbors,” he said.
Clemens and Talanian agree that the sagging economy has made it especially difficult for businesses in the area.
“The economy is not great right now and Cambridge Street is feeling the effects of that,” Clemens said.
While Julie and Bessie King wait for the hammer to drop, they’ve tried to expand their business in other ways, with varying success. Bessie said they have enjoyed success in selling their salsa on-line, but other efforts ran into bureaucratic obstacles.
“There are not enough tools from the city for support,” Bessie said. “There’s just a lot of red tape.”
Bessie said they had hoped to expand by operating burrito carts downtown, but trying to secure a permit from the city has proved almost impossible.
In the meantime, Julie remains optimistic about he future, noting many customers followed the business to Beacon Hill from it’s original Woburn location.
“Hopefully something will work out,” Julie said. “I am in God’s hands now.”
(Stewart Bishop photo for boston.com)