French & Michigan: A Zoning War With No Winners

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French & Michigan building at 115 Michigan Ave. Photo by Page Graham.

French & Michigan building at 115 Michigan Ave. Photo by Page Graham.

What happens when a couple of young, brilliant, yet idealistic folks happen to encounter an entrenched coterie of neighborhood activists? In the case of French & Michigan, a nightmare…and an education.

Just off Fredericksburg Road in the Beacon Hill neighborhood sits a small, white building called French & Michigan. Nestled against a small triangle of shops and a very small park, it gets its name from the street corner where French and Michigan Streets meet. French & Michigan long ago became more than the corner where two streets meet. It became the intersection where good people from different worlds collided, a dramatic example of San Antonio’s often-heated gentrification discussion.

The occupants of the building at 115 Michigan Ave., Billy Lambert and partner Céleste Wackenhut, have a deep attraction to it. There is a unique charm, both inside and out, not to mention the quiet setting – a miniature oasis along a bustling thoroughfare. They are idealistically ambitious. Wackenhut is an art curator and worked for a time at the McNay Art Museum. Their design/build firm started at a dining room table in Southtown.

Billy Lambert (left) and a co-worker discuss a plumbing challenge at a job site. Photo by Page Graham.

Billy Lambert (left) and a co-worker discuss a plumbing challenge at a job site. Photo by Page Graham.

Lambert and Wackenhut, along with building owner Jeffrey Dersh, developed a multipurpose vision for French & Michigan. Not only would it be a residence, it would also house Lambert and Wackenhut’s design/build firm. In addition to that, there were plans to have a small coffee-house and an art gallery, along with small household items and succulent plants for sale. If this wasn’t ambitious enough, it also was offered as a community gathering space.

But Lambert and Wackenhut faced roadblocks. Despite the building’s history as a floor covering store, a cabinetry shop, and an automotive service center, the property was rezoned from commercial to residential several years ago. The adjacent strip center, which is still zoned commercial, once housed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, among other things.

The building adjacent to French & Michigan once housed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Photo by Page Graham.

The building adjacent to French & Michigan once housed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Photo by Page Graham.

The other problem with the location is that there is no on-site parking available. Originally, parking was available on the adjacent lot, but that property is now owned by others. Anyone visiting French & Michigan must park on streets surrounding the building.

Lambert was not to be deterred. In order to build consensus for the project, he approached the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association board. According to BHNA Vice President Jerry Lockey, the proposal was put to a vote not once, but twice. It was approved both times.

Lambert and Wackenhut continued to forge ahead with their plans, opened up shop before acquiring a certificate of occupancy. They figured that any opposition could be overcome by building positive community consensus. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Enter the community activists, including nearby residents Jessica Fuentes, Maria Berriozábal and Carmen Tafolla. All of them are well-known in the community – Fuentes is a former Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association president, Berriozábal is a former  City Council member and mayoral candidate, and Tafolla is the city’s former poet laureate.

Although each has their own motivations for opposing the French & Michigan plans, they are united in their desire to see the property remain residential.

The opposition campaign went into full force. Letters were written. Flyers were distributed. A petition was circulated. A community meeting was arranged in order to galvanize opposition to the zoning change. The petition listed reasons for opposition:

  • Additional cars being parked in the area, along with traffic, would increase risk for children walking to schools located across Fredericksburg Road.
  • Changing the zoning would encourage commercial encroachment.
  • Changing the zoning would allow “permissible uses under C2 Zoning not suitable near a school and residential areas.”

There are many neighbors who publicly support the building’s proposed uses. Last February, during the On and Off Fredericksburg Road Studio Tour, I met neighbors David and Rachel Martinez. “I wish these guys could stay forever,” David said.

Rachel added, “It was always commercial, and was only residential for a while. So it’s back to commercial. This place is great for the neighborhood. What’s the big deal?”

“I thought neighbors were supposed to get along with each other,” David said of the hotly debated zoning issue.

Billy Lambert and Oscar Hernandez, Sr. discuss a grill being built for a French & Michigan client. Photo by Page Graham.

Billy Lambert and Oscar Hernandez, Sr. discuss a grill being built for a French & Michigan client. Photo by Page Graham.

Oscar Hernandez Sr., owner of Oscar’s Iron Works in Beacon Hill, has strong praise for Lambert. The design/build firm has provided a considerable amount of work for his workers. He supports Lambert’s plans for French & Michigan.

BHNA VP Lockey has no trouble expressing his feelings to those aligned against the French & Michigan proposal. “This is all bull****,” he said. “Some people only come to neighborhood meetings when it serves their purpose.”

Cars are parked along Michigan Street, looking north. Photo by Page Graham.

Cars are parked along Michigan Street, looking north. Photo by Page Graham.

In a lengthy interview, Berriozábal said she became aware of the issue one evening when French & Michigan was having a “50/250” art event, where 50 artists contributed 250 small works for sale.

Berriozábal says that as she came home, she encountered a “minor traffic jam” at Russell and Michigan streets. That event, compounded with a request from another community activist for action, set her in motion.

As a former councilwoman, Berriozábal represents a formidable figure who is still very much connected to numerous activists, community groups and politicians in San Antonio.

Berriozábal articulates her opposition in terms of gentrification. In our conversation, she referred to two previous efforts to build multi-unit housing in the neighborhood, specifically a duplex and a four-plex on Hollywood and Craig streets, respectively. Her view is that this sort of housing does not fit the area, which she characterizes as mostly single-family homes.

According to Lockey, many of these single-family homes in the area were subdivided into two and three units by speculators during the savings & loan crisis in the 1980s.

In Berriozábal’s eyes, the coup de grace in the gentrification debate was the rezoning of the Mission Trails trailer park. That strengthened her resolve to combat the issue – she is most passionate about gentrification when she sees it as displacing the working poor.

And in the midst of all this rancor is French & Michigan. She refers to it as “the tip of the iceberg,” part of a broader set of issues.

A sculpture by Danville Chadbourne graces a pocket park in front of French & Michigan. Photo by Page Graham.

A sculpture by Danville Chadbourne graces a pocket park in front of French & Michigan. Photo by Page Graham.

What happened to Beacon Hill? Built in the 1920s and 30s as a residential suburb, it was dominated by single-family homes, many of them of the Craftsman or Arts & Crafts bungalow styles. Over the course of time and for various reasons, many homes fell into a state of disrepair. Subdivided homes became the norm.

Fast forward to current times. Over the last few years, young professionals have sought to move back into the urban core, seeking to reap the benefits of inner-city living. Proximity to amenities, a sense of living in a community, and owning older homes with character are among the features bringing people back inside the Loop.

Among others, the landlords in the area sense this opportunity and are selling homes – many of which are still in serious disrepair – to individuals planning on revitalizing the properties. However, this causes displacement of the tenants. As more and more properties get improved, the availability of affordable inner-city housing for the working poor decreases. French & Michigan, however, is located near a highly desirable, middle-class neighborhood.

This home in Beacon Hill is currently being "flipped" to prepare it for sale. Photo by Page Graham.

This home in Beacon Hill is currently being “flipped” to prepare it for sale. Photo by Page Graham.

Berriozábal is quick to point out that she’s not talking about people who are eligible for “affordable housing.” Currently, that figure is set at $47,070 or less, which is 80 percent of the area median income. Realistically, there are many who make considerably less than this – and it will become an increasing challenge for them to find living space. Public housing is a limited option at best – there are waiting lists, which are often closed.

As such, Berriozábal’s opposition to rezoning French & Michigan is rooted in this broader issue. And the opposition has gotten plenty of attention, resulting in roadblocks to rezoning.

The French & Michigan proposal actually made it through the City Planning Commission last December. According to one former commission member, Fuentes was the only person to speak at the meeting in opposition. Berriozábal was in attendance but did not speak. After approval, the process stalled.

According to Lambert, he was approached by District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, who indicated he would oppose the rezoning. Generally, other Council members will support the decision of the councilman in whose district the zoning case lies. At that point, the decision was made by Lambert to drop the rezoning request. (A request for comment was made to Bernal’s office, with no response provided.)

The interior of French & Michigan includes this two-story central area. Photo by Page Graham.

The interior of French & Michigan includes this two-story central area. Photo by Page Graham.

After letting the issue lay dormant for a few months, Lambert swung back into action. He hired local zoning powerhouse attorney Rob Killen to help pursue his case. He made numerous ongoing concessions in the hope that Bernal would change his mind. He attempted to rent four parking spaces nearby in order to get approval. To date, these efforts have mostly been unsuccessful.

According to Lambert, Bernal continues to oppose any zoning change. He would allow a live-work situation, with only four employees allowed. Everything else is off the table, including the art gallery. Ironically, artist Rolando Briseño has a studio in the adjacent building on Michigan, which is occasionally open to the public. Briseño supports the French & Michigan concept.

Through this entire process, Lambert and Wackenhut have endured financial hardship. The rezoning effort has caused them to neglect their business, and their legal fees are mounting.

French & Michigan does many charitable works, such as this unique door for San Anto Cultural Arts on the Westside. Photo by Page Graham.

French & Michigan does many charitable works, such as this unique door for San Anto Cultural Arts on the Westside. Photo by Page Graham.

And so they are moving on. The design/build business will soon be moving to a facility in Southtown. However, they still choose to live in the French & Michigan building. If they can get approval for “conditional use” from the city, the art gallery will be housed there.

The irony of this story is how this sort of opposition can cause unintended consequences.

For example, Uptown Studio, located a block down Fredericksburg Road, had been renting a church parking lot located behind it for certain in-kind “tradeouts,” such as Internet access. Upon hearing of the demand for parking spaces in the area, according to Lockey, the church is now seeking $500 monthly to use the lot. Artists often lead a hand-to-mouth existence, which means the studio owners will have a difficult time coming up with the money.

In addition, opposition cries of gentrification only serve to raise the profile of the neighborhood’s desirability. At the corner of Craig and Grant, a large house is undergoing renovation in order to be “flipped” by a speculator. Over the next several years, this trend is certain to accelerate. It is unstoppable because zoning regulations permit it.

This church building at 1101 W. Woodlawn is reportedly under contract. Photo by Page Graham.

This church building at 1101 W. Woodlawn is reportedly under contract. Photo by Page Graham.

Nearby, the Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church and adjacent building at 1101 W. Woodlawn has been for sale, and it is rumored to be under contract. The numerous artists who had studios in the space will be displaced on September 1. The official closing show and sale for the majority of the studios was held last Friday, although Louie Chavez’s Plazmo Contemporary has one more exhibition scheduled for August 30.

And what about the planned duplex on West. Hollywood? Lockey says that the developer had originally intended to combine two 25-foot lots to build the duplex – the building would be sideways on the lot to accommodate parking. Thanks to the opposition, he now plans to build two very narrow homes on those lots. That’s what current zoning permits. The owners will have to park on the street.

There are no winners in this war. Battles might be won or lost, but any victory is Pyrrhic at best. The collateral damage incurred on all sides overshadows everything else.

*Featured/top image: French & Michigan building at 115 Michigan Ave. Photo by Page Graham.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the property was zoned commercial after the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan. That plan is not a zoning document, rather a neighborhood conservation district overlay.  

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Gentrification: “Angriest Issue In Urban America”

Jump-Start Performance Explores Southtown Gentrification

The G-card: Defining Gentrification in Dignowity Hill 

Conversation: Renting in San Antonio’s Urban Core

With Little Neighborhood Support, Others File Suit to Stop Eastside Brewery

25 thoughts on “French & Michigan: A Zoning War With No Winners

  1. I was at the neighborhood meeting for this because I was thinking of having my studio in the strip of matching commercial buildings on Michigan, a few feet from this address. After I witnessed the witch hunt mentality of this neighborhood’s residents in power, I changed my mind. It was bizarre. No bueno.

  2. Billy Lambert and his crew at French and Michigan have been great and generous friends to San Anto Cultural Arts for several years. 4 years ago, Billy was instrumental with rehabbing San Anto’s new home at 2120 El Paso. Today, San Anto is expanding it’s building by some 1700 extremely necessary square feet. San Anto was only able to clear the zoning and permitting hurdles with Billy and Nate Manfred generously answering all the City’s permitting requirements. Billy and French & Michigan are truly making a difference in our communities and we are extremely grateful to them.

  3. I wish Diego M. Bernal would explain the opposition to this. I’m having a hard time understanding. It sounds as if Lambert and Wackenhut have a very well thought out plan for the future of this building and neighborhood.

  4. This is a shame. The opposition is making a big mistake and harming the interests of the community and the property owners.

  5. This is a shame. The opposition is making a big mistake and harming the interests of the community and the property owners.

  6. I hope the neighborhood would go from here and have some conversations to put forth a positive vision what they want their neighborhood to be like, rather than just reacting against proposals.

    In many neighborhoods, neighbors like the idea of having small neighborhood businesses that they can walk to, provided that issues like noise at night or parking can be addressed.

    In this case, it seems like there are some differing opinions of what they want the neighborhood to be: on the one hand they want affordable rental housing, but on the other hand they deny a new proposed duplex.

    On the one hand they want to retain the character of the neighborhood’s traditional single family craftsman homes, and want them to be restored, but on the other hand cry “gentrification” when someone restores one.

    I think the neighborhood would benefit by having everyone come together and really decide what they want the neighborhood to be, and look to partner with folks in a positive way to figure out how to get there.

  7. CoSA should spend more time protecting the historic housing stock from flippers. The photo shown in the article looks ghastly. I find it funny that Bernal coined the term ‘The Neighborhood of No’ for King William, calling us all privileged. The same kinds of projects as Lambert’s live/work have been moving into KW for many years, especially the last 5. And you don’t see us getting vitriolic and shutting artists and designers out of our area.

    • Yes, it is lacking in aesthetic taste, as many flip homes tend to be. According to Jerry Lockey, the BHNA could do little more than object to a couple of front windows because the neighborhood only has NCD status (Neighborhood Conservation District, one step below Historic).

      Why? Lockey says that there are activists in the Beacon Hill neighborhood who strongly oppose obtaining Historic District status. That’s yet another source of his frustration.

      • FYI i am not frustrated with those opposing Historic Status – i actually agree, but as a neighborhood we have never opposed anyone wanting to become historic. it is their personal prerogative and we respect that. This was one of the many discussions we had in the 5 public meetings to become an NCD.

      • I am the owner of the aestically unpleasing home on Craig and Grant. We went to great lengths and cost to maintain as much of the original aesthetic the house had before we purchased it. In fact the only real differnce are the windows, which were ordered incorrectly and should have been plain glass with no trim, but it was too late to change them once the contractor started installing them. We were able to save and/or recreate all the original aesthetics, including the brick support columns, doors, tongue and groove ceilings outside and much more. It is not a finished product yet, but is 100% improvement from what it was, which was a flop bouse for the homeless. I don’t consider myself a flipper, rather an urban redeveloper. This was a passion project not a pure money play. You can’t please everyone.

        • Dustin, Note: I am not the one in the article that stated the property at Craig was aesthetically unpleasing. In fact, my wife and i think it looks almost exactly like the original only cleaned up/fixed up. This is not a historic district yet other than materials used it was redone pretty closely. This is why the NCD is so important. It allows lower income homeowners to keep their property in good shape and within character using modern materials (if they want) w/o having to meet higher standards and higher costs of historic districts.

  8. Just a small correction – Where Mr. Graham states that ” the property was rezoned from commercial to residential in 2005 as part of the City’s Beacon Hill neighborhood plan.” That statement is incorrect as what he is referring to is our NCD status. The NCD is a building standards overlay NOT a Zoning document that had any bearing on turning French and Michigan into a residential property. In fact, the BHANA NCD is helping to revitalize the neighborhood w/o gentrifying it. The last owner asked for F&M to be rezoned residential JUST LIKE Mr. Lambert and Ms. Wackenhut is asking that it be rezoned Commercial.

  9. Billy Lambert and partner Céleste Wackenhut, have done a fabulous job maintaining the unique charm, both inside and out. I live nearby and I appreciate someone who values and works hard in maintaining the integrity and charm of the building and at the same time bringing revitalization to the neighborhood.

  10. It’s a shame that cultural sanctuaries like this that bring attention and value to the neighborhood are squashed by greedy, higher-than-thou neighbors. I live in Beacon Hill and would love to see more places like this to attract, strengthen, and grow our neighborhood culturally. Let our neighborhood grow organically, do not try and pigeon hole the future of Beacon Hill with shallow “preservation” programs like Historic Districts. What we should be preserving and promoting is a neighborhood that is multifaceted, modern, and innovative. Just look at the variety of new shops that have opened up on Blanco.

  11. I can’t understand why getting stuck in traffic for a few minutes one evening, would cause two women to orchestrate such unneeded drama.

    • For one reason some people think that they own their street and the parking in it. Even the Zoning Commissioner Chairman in his comments at the zoning meeting indicated he was concerned if people parked on “their” street – meaning the opposition that lived on that street. (as if it was not a public street) Unbelievable!

  12. I am the, “flipper,” of the house on Craig and Grant, as pictured above. I personally met with the head of the conservation district and followed their guidelines while restoring this home. The, “dump,” as my wife describes it, should have been demolished and something new should have been built there, as it would have been much cheaper, than the course I took, which is to maintain the archtictual integrity of the home. When the house was acquired, through foreclosure, it had been occupied by squatters. This house and Beacon Hill are a phoenix rising from the ashes of decades of neglect. Your welcome!

  13. I lived in one of the storefront apartments on Michigan and Fredericksburg Road. (which French St. parallels in this area) pictured as the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ building (I had no idea about this prior use) about 12 years ago – when this little strip (most definitely zoned for live-work arrangements) included an informal (?) artistic tattoo parlor / living space as well as a tech. start-up / living space right next to my unit . . . with more similar mixed uses on the other side of the building and in neighboring properties (tamale shops, etc).

    I was drawn to the apartment precisely because it was zoned and set up for a backroom living area and front room business – as many buildings in this particular stretch of Beacon Hill / Fredericksburg Road are (eg. upstairs or backroom residence and ground floor walk-up business).

    Back then, the adjacent building now in question (French & Michigan) had just been re-purposed to function as some sort of arts gallery (and possible living space?). From memory, it frequently held day and evening events, and parking was no big deal considering the copious street parking in all directions from the property

    Concerns now about zoning or parking seem ridiculous to me as the character of this particular corner of Beacon Hill has historically been mixed residential and walk-up commercial in the same building . . . and particularly commercial with a creative flair (hair salons, antiques, art supplies, pinball machine and jukebox repair, tamales, web design, etc).

    The City should quickly approve whatever Lambert and Wackenhut are seeking as their work is an extension of prior uses of the property and in keeping with the historic mixed residential-commercial character of this particular corner of Beacon Hill.

    PAGE GRAHAM – a more important story in this particular neighborhood is how in the world the Historic Board / City approved last July’s demolition of the (historic? mixed use?) Small World Hobbies building and facade a few blocks north of French & Michigan on Fredericksburg Road – a demolition due much more scrutiny than the current zoning discussion and a huge loss for San Antonio overall. Particularly as this now-vacant lot has sat undeveloped for over 14 months, leaving a major gap in the street line?

    Rivard Report readers deserve to see what was knocked down to create a (permanent?) vacant lot – if only to wonder why the City is apparently so up for destruction and/or opposed to mixed artistic commercial-residency preservation in this neighborhood?

    A second story could be investigating why on earth VIA’s PRIMO service currently by-passes this particular stretch of Fredericksburg Road (as little time is gained and fewer residential areas served with the current routing) – noting the current disrepair / lack of investment in bus stops and sidewalks or bike paths connecting from this area to either the HEB a mile up the road or San Pedro Park (the city’s central park and a national treasure) or the Central Library . . and despite the neighborhood being well within 10,000 steps (at least, on paper) of these amenities and the Alamo.

  14. I worry about gentrification too, because I WANT to live in a place that is diverse economically, with old people and young, with humble structures as well as grand, with different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, political views &c In fact it’s the rich diversity of urban areas that help distinguish them from life in the ‘burbs (the ‘burbs that young people are starting to reject and which interestingly, Beacon Hill once was.) However, this property, which in its long history has been mostly commercial, and which sits along a commercial corridor, is the wrong battle to pick. This is just the sort of project that preserves wonderful buildings and gives life to the surrounding area. Living “above the shop” is a time honored way of life.

    SouthTown will benefit greatly from the gifts of LAmbert and Wackenhut.

    Lavaca, which IS an historic neighborhood…is at the same time innovative. A few years ago my husband and I were able, after a great deal of work, and a long road through the official procedures, to get a zoning change to IDZ, allowing us to live, office, paint and sell our art in the same place. After reading this, I am grateful that Mary Alice Cisneros was our councilwoman at the time.

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