French & Michigan building. Photo by Page Graham.
French & Michigan building. Photo by Page Graham.

The French & Michigan zoning saga is no simple matter. A small group of determined activists strongly oppose any rezoning of the building, intending to keep it as residential. For most of its 70-year existence, the very same building was home to a variety of businesses and zoned commercial.

French & Michigan residents Billy Lambert and Céleste Wackenhut have amended their request to a conditional use permit. This would allow them to operate a 700 square foot art gallery in the building, while also using it as their residence. The design and build firm currently housed there is in the process of relocating to Southtown.

At the time of publication, the rezoning has been approved. However, during the rezoning meeting, neighborhood activist Jessica Fuentes was allowed to distribute information packets at the same time Wackenhut was speaking to the board. Not only did this cause a distraction, it was a breach of protocol.

On Monday evening, Sept. 15, the City Board of Adjustment will consider approving a parking waiver. If approved, the case will move to City Council for final consideration in early October.

UPDATED on Tuesday, Sept. 23: The Board of Adjustment hearing has been postponed until October 6, after Lambert and Wackenhut’s rezoning request is scheduled for a City Council vote on October 2. Wackenhut recently wrote an open letter to District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal concerning the situation. It addresses several contentious issues that have heretofore been kept below the surface, but are now emerging.

In the letter Wackenhut claims that Bernal has had private meetings with the Fuentes family, but indicates that he has not reached out to the residents that live in homes surrounding the property. She also implies that the Fuentes family has used threats and harassment against their neighbors – not to mention outright slander – in order to push their agenda forward.

The letter is a lengthy read, but provides a first hand account from one of the key players in this heated issue.

What is the motivating factor behind the opposition from a small but vociferous group of nearby residents, and now, some outside activists? That depends on who you ask. Different individuals have different agendas, and in some instances, the real reason is probably obscured.

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

Is it gentrification?

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Executive Director Graciela Sanchez has stepped into the fray, making her opposition public by submitting a Zoning Commission Response Form. The Esperanza, which is on track to receive a significant boost in city arts funding as a community-based civil rights and arts organization, recently has mounted opposition to a range of urban core development projects, ranging from the sale of Univision to a multi-family developer to the construction of the Alamo Brewery in Dignowity Hill.

Sanchez stated in her response form: “No desire for gentrification in this neighborhood. Many people in Beacon Hill neighborhood have come to us upset by this new development. Please respect the people of this neighborhood and deny zoning change.”

It should be noted that those in opposition are in the minority. The Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association voted in favor of the rezoning request two different times. Rezoning comment forms were sent to all residents within a 200-foot radius of French & Michigan. Seven forms were returned in favor of the rezoning. None was sent back in opposition to the request.

Attorney Rob Killen, who represents Lambert, views the situation differently. Based on his research, this is not a case of gentrification.

“Gentrification implies fundamental change,” he said, adding that this case involves restoration of the (building’s) traditional role in the neighborhood.

Some say that already happened some years ago in the neighborhood, and that some of the activists who now oppose the zoning change were part of that gentrification process.

Artist Rolando Briseño, who lives and works in the adjacent commercial building on Michigan Avenue, has another take.

“All the people complaining are living in gentrified houses,” he stated. “With regards to the gentrification process, it’s contagious when the neighbors start fixing up.”

Some call it gentrification, others call it revitalization – it all depends on your point of view.

The building across Fredericksburg from the French & Michigan location stands derelict. Photo by Page Graham.
The building across Fredericksburg from the French & Michigan location stands derelict. Photo by Page Graham.

Is it cultural misunderstanding?

Lambert and Wackenhut originally intended to include a small plant nursery as part of their business. They were going to offer neighborhood residents cacti for use as natural fences. This didn’t sit well with activist Jessica Fuentes.

Lambert recalled the conversation he had with Fuentes in an email:

“Jessica approached us (Lambert, Killen and F&M employee Nate Manfred) in the hall before a zoning meeting last year and said, ‘You are a racist. Your business plan is racist, because you want to sell nopalitos (prickly pear cactus) to the poor people.’ We could not really understand what she meant, and then she went on to say essentially that we wanted to open a plant nursery so we could sell cactus and plants to the poor people in the neighborhood, but sell expensive art to the rich people who did not live in the neighborhood.

“Then, when Nate, Rob Killen, and I were standing in the hall, she told us three that we were ‘White Privileged Males,’ ” he remembered.

Ethnic tension, for whatever reason, on the part of those in opposition to the rezoning, is unstated yet palpable.

One of the arguments used by those opposed is the concept that people in the neighborhood won’t be buying expensive art – the assumption is that they can’t afford it. Therefore, the art gallery is incompatible with their community.

The nursery concept, meanwhile, has been shelved. French & Michigan undoubtedly aroused some opposition from the many things the building’s occupants wanted the space to be: residence, art gallery, live-work design studio, nursery, community gathering spot, and so on.

Is it racism?

This is a touchy subject, but there are those who believe there are undertones of racism. In multiple Facebook postings, artist Jacinto Guevara laid it bare.

“When artists do things for themselves without kissing up to the nonprofit ‘minority’ power structure. The Esperanza Peace Ctr and María Berriozábal are at it again. Basically if you are WHITE and STRAIGHT you don’t move in and build your business UNLESS you kiss their outdated ‘hispanic’ power structure asses. Diego Bernal is scared S***LESS by them and will throw ‘gentrifiers’ (white people) under the bus.”

In a phone interview, District 1 City Councilmember Diego Bernal was quick to make a retort to this claim. He points out that he has voted against the wishes of Esperanza and other activist groups, most notably in the case of the Alamo Brewery building site.

If asked, anyone involved would obviously deny having racist motives – it would be an insult to even ask them. Furthermore, Latinos have traditionally been the victims of racism themselves. Sanchez and Berriozábal certainly have worked tirelessly over the years to combat discrimination against the Latino, working poor, and LGBT communities.

Regardless, all those publicly opposing the rezoning are Latino females. Lambert and Wackenhut are white. On one hand, this could be mere coincidence. Indeed, that’s the best case scenario. But if Lambert and Wackenhut had been Latinos, would there have been opposition to the rezoning? That is a question no one can realistically answer. No one has ever protested Briseño’s presence in the neighborhood, or his critical and commercial success as an artist. His works might strike some of the same people as expensive; on the other hand, his work hangs in local museums.

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

Is it parking?

The French & Michigan building has no parking spaces on its property. The triangle of streets in which it sits was intended to be the parking area for all the businesses nestled around it. According to Briseño, vintage newspaper articles point out that customers were expected to park on the street.

Yet for some, the congestion caused by on-street parking is an issue. Attorney and former Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association President Sharyll Teneyuca finds it to be a challenging situation.

The corner of Fredericksburg and Michigan is a tight, convoluted corner, further constricted when vehicles are parked there. To exacerbate the situation, sight lines are hampered by landscaping. Teneyuca said she nearly ran into a police car coming the other way while turning on to Michigan last week.

For this reason, she opposes the parking waiver for French & Michigan.

Briseño said vehicles parked in that particular location are actually clients visiting the attorney and doctors’ offices located in his building on Michigan. French & Michigan visitors park in front of that building, or further up Michigan.

Regardless, parking is tight in the triangle. However, installing more “No Parking” signs is not the solution. In fact, the city should move to encourage parking along Fredericksburg Road. Installing signs to indicate no parking from 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. is a workable solution. Cars parked along the street would provide a buffer for businesses facing Fredericksburg. It might even help alleviate the problem Teneyuca described.

Is it something else?

The biggest problem is the stubbornness and intransigence on all sides. The opposition to even a small art gallery in the building continues unabated. No quarter has been given by those against it.

Meanwhile, Lambert has continued to run a business in the space despite lacking a Certificate of Occupancy. On this point, Bernal is unequivocal.

“It is important that the applicants follow the law and respect the process just like everyone else,” he said.

Even though the French & Michigan design/build firm has moved out, he considers the “private” art events currently hosted there as skating close to the edge of city code.

“I follow the law,” Bernal states, “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

One might argue that Lambert has compromised by considerably reducing his zoning change request. The multiple concepts originally proposed for French & Michigan – coffee shop, nursery, art gallery, design/build studio, and more – could certainly seem impractical at best, even overwhelming to everyone surrounding the building.

Briseño summed it up best: “They were asking for too many things. Now that they have one, it should be approved.”

Despite being part of the strident opposition in this case, Berriozábal is known for her ability to bring warring parties together. “Where’s the compromise?” she has been known to ask.

And that’s the basic premise. Is there any room to find middle ground? The current situation is only serving to divide neighbors in a district where reinvestment should benefit everyone. After all, no one is being displaced here. The neighborhood character is not being altered.

Bernal’s take on the situation echoes that of many others: “This has been blown out of proportion. I respect that a large cross-section of the neighborhood wants a gallery.”

Ultimately, the blame might go to those who changed the zoning from commercial to residential in the first place. One wonders why that ever happened. That rezoning should have never been approved; residential zoning requires at least one on-site parking space.

As Killen points out, if the Board of Adjustment denies a parking waiver altogether, the building probably will be vacated and be left unused. The only uses city code allows for a property with no on-site parking spots are taxi dispatch, mausoleum, or…parking lot.

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

This article was originally published on Sept. 15.

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Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...