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 Council chambers after City Council approved the zoning change in Oct. 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The French and Michigan saga came to an apparent close Thursday afternoon when City Council unanimously approved a special use zoning request that allows for a commercial building turned residence in the Beacon Hill neighborhood to operate as an art gallery.

District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, whose district includes the French and Michigan property, recused himself from the vote that brought passionate debate from neighbors during several citizens to be heard sessions. Sources say both sides of the debate have alleged claims to “smoking guns” that they say prove Bernal has helped the other side during mediation efforts, so City Attorney Robert Greenblum urged Bernal to recuse himself to avoid even the appearance of impropriety as specified in the City’s Ethics Code.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal
District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal

The issue was scheduled for a vote in October, but Bernal had encouraged the two sides to take another month to come to some sort of compromise. A mediation session took place on Oct. 27, but neither side would bend, and both brought their own “he said, she said” accounts to Thursday’s meeting.

French & Michigan residents and partners Billy Lambert and Céleste Wackenhut are renting the property at the now-infamous intersection owned by Jeffery Dersh. Today’s approval from City Council means Lambert and Wackenhut will officially reopen shop soon.

“It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of people supported us, and a lot of council people supported us, and we’re going to do our best to make sure that no one is ever up set with the choices they made,” Lambert said. “I’m a little in shock.”

The main issue for the gallery going forward will be parking during gallery openings and events, he said, adding that he and Wackenhut have been talking with artist Rolando Briseño, who lives and works in the adjacent commercial building on Michigan Avenue, about a parking arrangement that may be reached there.

Lambert and Wackenhut opened an art gallery on the property at 115 Michigan Ave. last year despite the absence of required commercial or mixed-use zoning. Though historically commercial, the building was zoned residential several years ago. The City issued a notice to cease operations in December 2013. The gallery has since hosted “private” gallery showings, which opponents to the rezoning case cited as a lack of respect for due process and the neighborhood.

City Council members who spoke in favor of approval included District 5 Councilmember Shirley Gonzales, District 4 Councilmember Ray Saldaña, District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher, and District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, as well as Mayor Ivy Taylor.

All cited encouragement of inner city development and investment as the driving force behind their support.

“This issue is a reflection of changing neighborhoods” all over San Antonio’s inner city landscape, said Taylor. “We need to facilitate and embrace investment in inner city neighborhoods … adaptive reuse of this building is a best case scenario.”

Mixed-use developments are cropping up all over the city, Gonzales said. “The live-work design is coming back – hopefully with less controversy moving forward.”

The request approved by council today had been approved by the planning and zoning commissions. A parking variance was also approved by the Board of Adjustments.

“I don’t think it would be right to ignore” their recommendations, said Gallagher.

Zoning cases are taken, officially, on a case-by-case basis as each property and neighborhood has its own set of complicated issues, neighborhood plans, and passionate neighbors. But at least psychologically, the French and Michigan case sets a precedent for a “city on the rise.”

“The process is skewed,” said community activist and former Councilmember María Berriozábal, who was part of the founding group of neighbors that formed the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association. “This case is a little tiny piece of what is going on in the entire inner city. We have never had this before, not since urban renewal, not since our expressway system decimated neighborhoods, have we had the growth that we’re having right now.”

Incentives, special zoning, and fee waivers have been offered as part of the City’s Inner City Reinvestment Infill Policy.

But, Berriozábal said, “The other side of the equation is what happens to the people who have been there the longest? That hasn’t been addressed. So because that hasn’t been addressed,  we have both proponents and opponents who have to struggle with a system that doesn’t fit us anymore.

“I am standing with my neighbors who live the closest … My bottom line has always been: I will listen to the people that live closest to the issue because they are the ones that have more to gain and more to lose,” she said. “There’s no bad people here. We have a city that needs to keep up with what’s happening with this focus of revitalizing the inner city.”

With no real policy in place on how to respond to changing neighborhoods, the work of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods – which includes Bernal, Berriozábal, and several other council members and community member – becomes increasingly important.

*Featured/top image: 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 October’s City Council meeting. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org