French & Michigan: Still No Decision

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The corner of Fredericksburg Road and Michigan Avenue. Photo by Page Graham.

Despite Mayor Ivy Taylor’s call to delay a vote on one of the city’s longest-running and most contentious zoning cases, a parade of citizens on both sides of the issue made passionate arguments before City Council on Thursday.

At issue is a proposed zoning change that would return a small building in Beacon Hill to its commercial roots and allow operations of an art gallery named for the now-infamous intersection of French and Michigan Streets.

City Council members listened to the citizens and then voted unanimously to revisit the issue in 30 days. District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier and District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña were absent for the meeting.

District 5 Councilmember Shirley Gonzales and District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez, both small business owners, indicated they would have voted to approve the measures today.

Mayor Taylor and others on the Council urged a compromise, which may prove to be wishful thinking with a minority group of area residents united in their effort to prevent the zoning change, even though the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association membership voted twice in favor of the project.

“We have an obligation to try to seek that common ground,” Taylor said. “Within the last two days some new information and developments have arisen that I believe make the possibility of an agreement between the two sides much more likely.”

Taylor is referring to the rumored possibility that the KIPP Aspire Academy, just down the street on Fredericksburg Road, might provide after-hour parking for French & Michigan during its exhibitions. Art galleries do not experience high volumes of vehicle traffic during normal working hours, but French & Michigan has no on-site parking, and street parking is limited.

Satellite view of the French & Michigan location. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Satellite view of the French & Michigan location. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Whether KIPP has the authority to share its parking on the property it leases remains to be determined. The issue, however, goes far beyond parking.

“A lot of what’s happening right now, what I see is sort of saddening,” said District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, noting the tension in the room between the two sides. “The question is, ‘Do you support neighborhoods or do you support business?’ and I think that’s a false dichotomy.

“I know that there are good and bad actors on both sides, but if we could find a place and a way for people to try to make something work, that’s worthwhile …It’s not about whether or not you support art … it’s about neighborhood peace.”

But comments by some neighborhood residents inside and outside Council chambers made it evident that even with a parking resolution, they might remain closed to compromise. Statements made Thursday echo those from previous forums and news coverage and likely will be voiced again in 30 days.

(Read more: French & Michigan Zoning Case: The Battle Rages On)

Former poet laureate Carmen Tafolla speaks out against the rezoning of the building at French and Michigan Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former San Antonio poet laureate Carmen Tafolla speaks in opposition to the rezoning of the building at French and Michigan Streets while District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (left) and District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez (center) look on. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Jessica Fuentes delivered one of the most comprehensive speeches describing why the majority of residents who live within 200 feet of the property, including herself and her mother, are opposed to the French and Michigan residents’ plan to open an art gallery.

Her first objection: The building’s tenants have been operating as an art gallery, hosting “private” exhibits while awaiting a zoning resolution.

“They started operating before they had the proper zoning,” she said. “These are highly educated people with advanced degrees. They speak eloquently, read, write, use the Internet – yet they claim they did not know the process? To disrespect my community and alter it with no regard to zoning or parking laws is arrogant.”

French & Michigan residents and partners Billy Lambert and Céleste Wackenhut both admitted naiveté in that respect. They began the process 14 months ago by taking their plans to the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association (BHNA) instead of City Hall.

“It wasn’t going to be a mall, it was going to develop and take shape over time depending on the needs of the community,” Wackenhut said.

Plans for the space originally included a residence, art gallery, live-work design studio, nursery, community gathering spot, coffee shop, and more. After meetings with the BHNA, they whittled down their wish list to a residence and art gallery – what Lambert and Wackenhut thought represented compromise on their part.

“The (BHNA) asked, ‘How will we be able to trust you, Mr. Lambert? A lot of people have come to our neighborhood, and they’ve made promises they can’t keep,'” Lambert said of the decision late last year to start hosting small gatherings in the space. “I said, ‘How about I show you guys how I’m going to do this?’ ”

From left: French & Michigan Designer Shane Tafares, Céleste Wackenhut, Billy Lambert, building owner Jeffery Dersh, and French & Michigan Designer Nate Manfred stand outside City Council chambers after Thursday's meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

From left: French & Michigan Designer Shane Tafares, Céleste Wackenhut, Billy Lambert, building owner Jeffery Dersh, and French & Michigan Designer Nate Manfred stand outside City Council chambers after Thursday’s meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

So he did, skirting the law, which was received well by the neighborhood association board, but not the nearby residents.

“The person that’s made the mistakes … that’s me, ” he said.

The BHNA, which represents residents new and old, homeowners and renters, voted 68 to 37 in favor of the plan presented to them months ago. The measures before council today have been approved by the planning and zoning commissions.

The BHNA welcomes the French & Michigan project as yet another small business to the mixed commercial and residential area.

“The Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association board and many of our members have felt as if our work and our vote has been disrespected and disregarded,” said BHNA Director Cosima Colvin. “Those that are in opposition who present themselves as speaking for the neighborhood are adding to confusion and misinformation.

“We are trying to revitalize our (commercial) corridor, which is to the benefit of all the residents of the neighborhood because if we don’t do it as a community-driven revitalization, it will be done for us.”

The BHNA represents the neighborhood majority, but the small group of residents who live within those 200 feet had just as many speakers signed up to speak on their behalf in chambers.

“I’m worn out,” Lambert said to the Council. “I have to just go to work. I can’t do this anymore. We’ve compromised, we’ve worked at it and worked together and split apart.”

After the meeting, though, Wackenhut said they would be willing to meet with the residents in opposition to search for some sort of agreement.

Attorney Rob Killen, who represents Lambert, joined Bernal in saying that the real issue at hand is parking.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal

District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal

“When you distill it, folks that I’ve talked to, their issue is with parking – safety and parking,” Bernal said. “The gentrification piece, I don’t buy. Whether or not the building should be a residence? It’s a box. There is no front yard. There is no backyard. It’s been a commercial building before, it’s been a residence before the neighborhood plan identified it as both. So the idea that it should be one or the other, I think, is not as important to finding a place where we can reach some neighborhood peace.”

But the topic of gentrification was touched on by many during the meeting.

“Gentrification is not an issue? I believe it is,” said Lewis Herbeck, Jr., who lives within 200 feet of French & Michigan. “The values of the properties (will increase) around the area. That’s the whole point of this development. And we’re concerned that we’ll have to pay higher property taxes. And we don’t want that.

“(Lambert) decided to make a business out of this building without proper planning,” he continued. “I feel that they’re asking you all to correct their mistakes and bail them out of their bad investment.”

If they can’t get the mixed-use zoning they’re asking for, Wackenhut said, “The rent is too high to just live there. The point was to have the gallery subsidize rent. (We wouldn’t be) sure where to go … what other problems will we run into in other neighborhoods?”

*Featured/top image: The corner of Fredericksburg Road and Michigan Avenue. Photo by Page Graham.

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UPDATED: French & Michigan Zoning Case: The Battle Rages On

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17 thoughts on “French & Michigan: Still No Decision

  1. My hat is off to Mayor Taylor for requesting a 30 delay in this vote. She truly seems to want to hear from both sides and reach a common ground on this and other city issues. It is nice to feel she is truly representing the best interests of all involved in all issues brought to city council. She has demonstrated this with her leadership on the streetcar, SAWS, this issue, and I’m sure others too that I am not aware of. I understand the concerns from both sides regarding this issue and do hope they work at a solution that is acceptable to all involved.

    • Are you kidding? This council meeting WAS to hear both sides, ad infinitum. The decision should have been made at THIS meeting. The F & M contingent have compromised until they can compromise no more, and have waited long enough, at the expense of their business (not to mention their sanity). Has the opposing side compromised at all? If not, the ruling should not be in their favor, as they are not working to resolve this in good faith. They just arrogantly want their own way.

      • The responses to this issue has been greater than any other Rivard Report I’ve seen. I do not know all the background on this issue, but obviously many people believe enough is enough. I do agree that the delays make it very difficult for the people wanting to start their business. The more people comment on this issue the more intriguing it becomes for me. Not sure why the residents are opposed to the zoning change. If their fear is increased tax base, I don’t think that should be a concern with the business proposed for the building. It’s not like the business is Wal-Mart or something similar.

  2. lets see, I betting Old people are going to get there way. Why you ask? Because they got there way with S Flores.

  3. The City’s constant delay on making a simple decision is now wanton & cruel. The neighbors who oppose this may not care but the folks of F & M are, contrary to insinuations, not well-to-do and they are losing money, jobs, sleep every day that this drags on. Come on!

  4. This is just ridiculous and cruel. The folks of F & M are not wealthy and this constant dragging on of a simple decision is impacting them negatively. If City Council members were serious about “neighborhood peace” they would have dealt with the mediation issue months ago. F & M should not be “punished” for their mistake in operating without permission at this point, they addressed it when called out and now it is way past time to move on. The neighbors who are opposed to this will find any reason to continue opposing this. I find it baffling that this completely simple issue on an insignificant building has been successfully turned into a major drama by its opponents. This is not a major gentrification issue. Get over it and deal with your street parking like any other urban environment!

  5. This makes no sense at all. Why have a neighborhood association and voting process if it’s simply going to be disregarded? A vote is a vote. Let’s do this already!

  6. I agree with S.T. Shimi and others. This delay is actually hurting people’s livelihood for no good reason. The city is sending the wrong message to young entrepreneurs. Instead of creating an environment that encourages people to take chances and do something creative–which is what we need to flourish and grow–it does just the opposite.

  7. Very proud of my councilwoman, D5’s Shirley Gonzalez, and D7’s Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez for being ready to approve this zoning change request yesterday. #enoughalready

  8. Our city council is filled with spineless individuals incapable of making a “difficult” decision. Just like when they punted on street car. You’re elected to make the right decision, not split the baby and ask for delays on relatively simple issues.

  9. Is anyone else calculating the time, opportunity and resource costs of Council and City Planning being focused to this micro “issue”? Why make policy or actual public improvements when you can dither about a neighborly squabble for months? Wish they would concentrate this hard on sidewalks, crossing lights, and bus stops and services in this part of town (and watch some of the current parking kerfuffle vanish). Nothing has changed in Beacon Hill in this regard over the thirteen years that I have passed through this neighborhood, including when I lived right next to the building in question when it last was an art gallery hosting various events.

    Our city leaders can’t imagine following other cities in doing away with commercial parking requirements altogether (particularly appropriate for this historic mixed use, walk-up commercial area) because they can’t imagine actually improving walking and public transport infrastructure throughout the city.

  10. I hope that Council is noting that neighbors are concerned about potential property tax increases – which any improvements or development in the neighborhood could potentially spark. One policy tool suggested at a forum earlier this year is property tax relief for long-term residents – 10 years or more and not just for the elderly. Terrific that individual Council members are concerned about gentrification . . . but why isn’t Council debating policy measures that might address this issue for residents across the city?

    Again, look at what we lose when the City gets caught up in petty micro issues.

  11. Ridiculous, stupid and sickening. So many great comments here. A historic COMMERCIAL building is sitting there vacant and crumbling. I guess these opponents would rather see it remain derelict? Or demolished? My heart goes out to these good people who are trying to do something positive in our community.

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