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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.