One Family Won't Abandon Ship: The Last Holdout

photograph by Kenny Braun

Lupe Riojas traces his finger along the faded date etched into his cement front porch: July 15, '61. "This is the date we moved in here," he recalls. More than a third of a century has passed since Riojas' home on Henderson Street was part of a sleepy neighborhood running along Shoal Creek near downtown; today the area is humming with activity, and Riojas' dwelling is sandwiched between the Whole Foods/Book People shopping center at the northeast corner of Sixth and Lamar, and the sparkly new GSD&M advertising agency offices across the street.

What was once a residential area has become one of the fastest growing business districts in central Austin, and Riojas finds his home nestled smack in the middle of a parking lot. Instead of neighbors, Riojas now endures the company of rumbling trucks and construction crews from dawn until dusk. But despite the constant commotion, and the fact that all of his neighbors have long since sold their land and moved away, Riojas is content to stay put in the single-story home where he operates his one-truck towing company and has raised two generations of his family. Until someone makes the right offer, that is.

According to Riojas, real estate developer Roy Butler has been trying to do just that for 20 years. Butler first began purchasing land in the area around his then-Lincoln-Mercury car dealership in the mid-1960s, when he acquired the lot where GSD&M is now located and rented it to a McMorris-Ford dealership. After that, Riojas watched each of his neighbors topple to Butler's offers, one by one. "Miss Jones came by one day and said `Don't sell until I do'," recalls Riojas. "Then she sold and moved away and didn't even tell me." Riojas says that most of the small homes along Henderson Street sold for around $18,000, which was the original offer Butler made for Riojas' house. He wasn't holding out for more money when he turned Butler down 20 years ago, Riojas says. "I just didn't want to leave. I've lived in the country, and I don't like it," he says.

Recently, however, with the success of the Sixth & Lamar intersection as a shopping and business district, Butler upped the ante considerably. Offering Riojas $200,000 for his 1/8 acre of land, Butler intended to turn the tree-filled plot into a picnic area for GSD&M employees. But Riojas refused the offer on the prompting of his adult children, who advised him to hold out for $225,000. Then it was Butler's turn to balk. "(Riojas) crawfished," says Butler, "backed out."

Riojas has every reason to take his sweet time about selling the property. With constant foot traffic in front of his strategically placed plot, he says that people stop by every day to ask how much he wants for it, but he turns them all away. In fact, he is already under contract to hold the property for a new prospective buyer, Sabia Botanicals. Rather than demolish the house, Sabia's owner, Aaron Reisfield, proposes restoring and refurbishing the dilapidated structure to expand his business from its rented storefront at 4101 Guadalupe. Riojas says he has nothing against Butler, but that he would prefer to sell to Reisfield, citing differences in the two businessmen's styles. Butler won't wave when he drives by the house, Riojas says, but Reisfield brought Riojas' family a chocolate cake at Christmas.

"There's a time, and then there's a time," says Butler, who says that Riojas has missed his, and that he no longer intends to purchase the property. However, Scott Young, Butler's real estate agent, says that his boss might make another offer if the time were right. "It's more purchasing an eyesore than anything else," Young says.

Call him stubborn, but Riojas, for his part, plans to continue to resist the development springing up all around him until he's good and ready. "I'll still live here," he says. "I ain't worrying about it."

-- Kayte VanScoy

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