If you’re in Austin or have Facebook friends who are, you might have seen news articles in the past few days about the sudden destruction of Jumpolin, a piñata and party-goods store formerly located on East Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
The well-known piñata store was razed by the owners allegedly without sufficient warning — and it may all have been caused by a dispute over a parking variance for an adjacent building between the owners and the neighbors.
The piñata store occupies a lot along with a building that is currently an auto repair shop and is slated to be remodeled into office space. (It’s the purple building seen here in this GoogleMap street view.) In October, the owners applied for a variance from the City of Austin regarding parking requirements, shortly after they purchased the lot. They wanted to reduce the required amount of on-site parking for the corner lot from 6 spaces to one handicapped space. A nearby business owner did send a letter supporting the variance, welcoming the new owners to the neighborhood.
The case went to the Board of Adjustment (which is where one goes for variances), and was scheduled for a hearing on November 10. Several neighbors in the East Cesar Chavez area — none of whom, I will note, have Hispanic surnames — filed paperwork with the Board of Adjustment to oppose the variance because it would increase parking around what is already a commercial street and made clear their intention to block it.
The case was postponed to December 8, before the owners’ agent withdrew the request in the face of neighborhood opposition. As a result, the owners chose to provide the required on-site parking for their future offices by knocking down the piñata store.
That brings us to Thursday, February 12, when the owners of Jumpolin — who rented the space for their business — Sergio and Monica Lejarazu came to the store to find their business literally torn to pieces, dismembered piñatas lying about and the cash register and other property destroyed. While a demolition permit had been applied for and approved in late January, the business owners claim they had no meaningful notice to remove their belongings. Doran Peters, the attorney for the Lejarazu’s, has already filed a lawsuit and claims that proper notice was not given, according to CultureMap. The owners — Jordan French and Darius Fisher — claim that the tenants were behind on rent, something the Lejarazu’s lawyer disputes.
In the past 24 hours it has also come out that site owners have applied for — and apparently received a permit to hold an event in the newly razed parking lot during SXSW, causing some Austinites to wonder if the entire purpose of the tear-down was for the event. Public scrutiny and the perceived political tone-deafness of the permit approval begs the question about when the permit was applied for since that process apparently stopped last week due to high demand.
Perhaps this didn’t have to happen: the site could have had its parking and a piñata store too. Emails from a neighborhood listserv suggest that some residents found the new owners rude in their interactions with the group, and that the actual dispute centered around not Jumpolin but rather the potential demolition of an 80-year-old gas station on the property. Allegedly a proposed parking plan by one neighbor would have obviated the conflict though it’s not clear if the owners were willing to explore alternatives (or if these were meaningful alternatives that were economically viable given the cost to buy the lot).
However, the property owners appear to have behaved in a manner that may even make it harder for nice, non-jerky people to gain future parking variances.
The story of obstinate neighborhood activists who seem to dedicate their lives to opposing any and all change is a familiar one in Austin, and can certainly be frustrating. This is a city in which changing any part of the built environment can entail months of delays and postponements that drive up the costs of projects in an effort to overcome individuals willing and able wait up all night at a meeting solely to deny a variance — here, for six parking spaces.
However, it’s quite frankly hard to be even remotely sympathetic to the owners of the property given the deplorable manner in which the owners destroyed the store’s durable goods without confirming the Lezaraju’s knowledge of the demolition on the 12th. They didn’t take the effort to save the store’s belongings or even rescue the cash register — any steps one might take as a decent human being. And it’s not clear how much longer the piñata store would have remained as such since apparently the lease was not going to be renewed. Regardless, smashing the store to literal bits is a poor way to act as a landlord and a neighbor.
But generally speaking, the broader context to this dispute isn’t surprising in a city where policies often prioritize plentiful parking over people, while failing to provide sufficient non-car alternatives.
For the neighbors, would allowing six cars to park near a commercial street around a corner lot really have been a worse outcome than turning the piñata store into a parking lot? For the owners, would considering the neighbors’ alternative parking plan that provided sufficient space for six cars while preserving the on-site structures really have been worse than gaining the ire of the entire city for destroying a business that rents bouncy castles for children’s birthdays?
I’d encourage everyone to be a better neighbor next time, but I wonder if it’s possible for the people that want to build things and the people that want to oppose building things to ever come to meaningful common ground in a city that fails to meaningfully address our population growth and the housing and transportation needs of all residents.
In the meantime, how many more minority-owned businesses are going to end up as rubble?
All in all, this tale of parking instead of party supplies and neighbors pitted against neighbors seems to have only resulted in a bunch of broken piñatas spilling only bile, leaving nothing sweet for anyone to enjoy.
Special thanks to researcher Analiese Kornely of BirdDog Research who found the City documents and shared them with Burnt Orange Report. She also made the nifty Google streetview map.