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Gallery Remains Closed As Neighborhood, Owners Make Their Case In Zoning Debate

The intersection of French Place and Michigan Avenue is more than a location in the inner-city neighborhood of Beacon Hill, it also happens to be the namesake of an art gallery that's been embroiled in controversy over the zoning of the building.

The words "Casa de Tarjetas" (House of Cards) are written in red cursive outside the historic square,  paying homage to the building's former owner, local urban infill expert Jonathan Card.

Architectural designer Billy Lambert is leasing the building from new owner Jeff Dersh to run French & Michigan, his design business and art gallery. Light floods the impressive space inside, while outside the quiet neighborhood is comfortable and well lived in.

But the red cursive letters hint at the shaky ground on which the gallery sits with the city and some neighbors. It does not have the proper zoning to be a business, and so in December it was shut down. But not before Lambert and gallery curator Celeste Wackenhut decided to remain open for several more months anyway.

"I mean, how much longer could we sit there and not do what we're here to do, which is serve artists and serve architects and do design," said Wackenhut in December, shortly after the gallery closed.

She said the main problem neighbors have with them is parking. Even during their September grand opening, though, she said music and crowds were kept to a minimum.

Wackenhut and Lambert have tried gaining the support of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association.

Cosima Colvin, the chair of the neighborhood's zoning and urban design committee, said support has been a mixed bag between those who think revitalization is a good thing, and others who aren't so wild about the business. Several meetings have been held with Beacon Hill leaders. That has been part of the reason for the frustration among those close to the gallery.

"We spoke in-depth about our project and about what our hopes and dreams were for the building, and nobody ever came to a vote," said Wackenhut. "There was a lot of support, there was a lot of good feedback on the business. But ultimately every meeting was somewhat filibustered and no decision ever came to be and it was time to open the business and it was time to take the next step."

That next step included hanging the gallery's first exhibit. Artist Jose Chapa is displaying some of his work at French & Michigan in a show being called 50/250. His embossed copper works are called, "The Gentle Side of Relationships" and feature would-be text messages between two people.

"Feeling inspired, thanks for your unconditional love," Chapa said of the message.

While the gallery is shut down, Chapa is at a loss for inspiration and love. The city's planning commission gave its blessing for the space in December. The gallery is waiting on the zoning commission to do the same this month. In the meantime, he's left wondering why San Antonio would want to blow this house of cards down.

"A lot of us own properties that we've been working on in the inner city for years and years, and we're just trying to do something that will benefit the inner city," Chapa said. "We like living in the inner city and we want to promote the inner city, so we really would hope and expect that the city of San Antonio would also support us."

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal said he wants what's best for the city, the gallery and the neighborhood.

"This is not taking, let's say, a single family home in the middle of a block and then turning it into a 12 person law office," Bernal said. "This is taking a building that's transitioned over the years from residential to commercial to residential to commercial to mixed use. In fact, it started as commercial. It doesn't have a front or back yard.

"I don't believe that there's been a real effort to bring people together and figure out if there's a middle ground. That's what my role is now and I think we can get there," Bernal said.

Soon the business will have been closed for a month and without a resolution, the design company and gallery's eight employees are stuck in limbo -- not only with proper zoning, but with some of the angriest neighbors.

"We feel like people don't really know who we are and why we're here, and we're here because we want to help all artists, we want to show good work, we want to do good work, and nothing about our business, we feel like, encroaches on the neighborhood. We feel like we're an asset," Wackenhut said.

The longer the debate looms, the more anxious employees get. They aren't sure how much longer they can go on before French & Michigan is once again just an intersection.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.