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.
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)
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?’ ”
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.
“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.