A proposal to build a Taco Bell near Mattapan Square is drawing objections from some residents who say Blue Hill Ave. doesn’t need another fast food restaurant — especially at a time when Boston is trying to revitalize the busy, long-neglected corridor that runs through the heart of Boston’s Black and brown communities.
A developer is proposing to demolish Los Tiburones Tire & Towing, a blue-and-white building near the intersection of Babson Street and Blue Hill Avenue, and build a 2,000 sq. ft. fast-food restaurant on the property. The project would include a drive-thru, six parking spaces, and indoor seating for 20 people, according to documents the proponents shared with neighborhood groups.
The developers, identified in a community meeting as Cantina Hospitality, LLC and Dartmouth Development Partners, have emphasized that they’re willing to work with residents to create a proposal that meets Mattapan’s needs.
“Some people might be in favor, and some might be opposed,” Derric Small, an attorney for the project, told the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council zoning committee at a recent meeting. “If we come to a general conclusion that [Taco Bell] is not wanted, we’ll have to go back, evaluate, and see if we want to move forward.”
So far, the plan has indeed met with opposition from some neighborhood leaders, who say a Taco Bell near Mattapan Square would endanger drivers along Blue Hill Avenue, add to the unhealthy food options already proliferating in their community, and detract from the neighborhood’s character.
”It’s the perfect storm,” said Barbara Fields, co-chair of the Woodhaven Culbert Regis Neighborhood Association. “We’re trying to enhance the community, not throw all these things in the square that don’t make sense.”
The proposal comes amid development aimed at revamping a neighborhood that has suffered from disinvestment. The Blue Hill Ave. Action Plan urges local developers to transform 30 vacant parcels along the street, and transportation officials have been working to ease the commute on notoriously clogged Blue Hill Avenue with new bus lanes.
Small and Cantina Hospitality did not respond to calls or e-mails requesting an interview. Taco Bell’s media team also could also not be reached for comment.
Taco Bell has locations in downtown Boston and West Roxbury, as well as a “cantina” concept restaurant in Brookline near Boston University. A South Boston location is also in the works.
The developers would have to clear a number of hurdles before breaking ground, including relief from the Zoning Board of Appeal; they have not yet applied for zoning relief, according to the city. The project would also need approval from the Boston Transportation Department and Boston Public Works.
Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, said traffic is one of her biggest concerns. She said the restaurant’s anticipated 400 daily visitors, some of them using a cramped drive-thru area, would worsen traffic congestion.
“To have something with such heavy traffic at the corner of Babson and Blue Hill Ave. is overwhelming,” Ali-Salaam said.
Ali-Salaam and others also say a Taco Bell would add to the many unhealthy, fast-food options that already exist in their neighborhood, including a Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Domino’s Pizza.
The franchise offers a customizable “nutrition calculator,” nutrition information, and ingredient statements on their official website, efforts to help patrons find healthy options.
But Catalina López-Ospina, vice president of engagement for Project Bread, a nonprofit that addresses food insecurity in Massachusetts, said systemic racism and lack of city initiative to promote healthy food options in neighborhoods of color like Mattapan has ushered in a plethora of cheap, fast-food options that are hard to resist. Building a Taco Bell, she said, would create another barrier to accessing the fresh, healthy food residents actually desire.
“We’re not making the right decision an easy decision for them,” López-Ospina said.
Valerie Burton, president of the River Street Civic Association, would like to see more mom-and-pop shops, sit-down restaurants, and “quality stores” that would restore some of the lively shopping district feel it enjoyed decades ago, before block-busting and government neglect depleted the local business community that once distinguished it.
“They’ve taken so much away,” she said. “Now, there’s nothing new and vibrant in Mattapan that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Across the street from the proposed Taco Bell one afternoon last week, Stacey Thomas chatted with clientele hoping to grab a snack or put $20 on a pump at her family’s Mobil gas station. The station hosts a tiny but busy smoothie joint, one of the few healthy food options in the area. The loud whirring of a blender filled the air as an employee prepared fruity concoctions, whose health benefits were listed on a chalkboard in rainbow-coloreds: Turmeric combats Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease, it said; sea moss boosts energy levels, builds muscle, and aids the immune system.
Thomas said she often sees traffic accidents on the avenue outside, not to mention constant traffic. Another fast food joint, she said, would make things worse.
“But the community may not have much of a choice,” she said.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.