He came in like a wrecking ball, and he's really, really sorry.
Jordan French, the man behind last week's sudden demolition of a Hispanic-owned, Eastside piñata business, expressed his contrition in response to an email from the Chronicle inquiring about the incident. "I deeply regret the unfortunate outcome," French wrote. "I want to apologize to Sergio and Monica Lejarazu, their family, and the Austin community for this undue grief."
The saga began on Feb. 12, when the Lejarazus – who've sold piñatas and other party favors for the past eight years at Jumpolin, their store at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez – arrived to work to find the building demolished. Property owner French explained that the couple was not only behind on rent, but also had past compliance issues. Still, "As a small business owner and East Austin resident," French wrote, "I empathize with everyone affected by this difficult incident."
That's little consolation to the Lejarazus, who are now faced with having to find a new building to sell their wares – not an immediately viable prospect, given a lack of resources exacerbated by their newly destroyed inventory. "Ever since the new owners took over in the fall, they have tried to get [the Lejarazus] out of the building," said their attorney, Doran Peters of Hajjar Peters LLP. "They took the drastic and illegal measure of bulldozing their property instead of going through the legal measures, denying my clients the basic right of due process of law."
F&F Real Estate Ventures, a limited liability corporation co-owned by French and business partner Darius Fisher, "purchased the building on Oct. 17, 2014," French confirmed. "We own other residential real estate in Austin, but no other commercial property." He claimed the business owners were served with notice to vacate before the demolition: "The notice of impending demolition was visibly posted on the property on Jan. 23."
Peters disputed the claim of advance notice, noting it would make no sense to leave inventory, family photographs, and even medical records on site – all of which were among the Jumpolin detritus – if a demolition had been anticipated. "On February 10, my client gets a notice written on a computer saying they haven't paid rent and to vacate in 48 hours. It didn't say, "Pay or we'll demolish," because if it did, I would've gotten a temporary restraining order. What my office did was call their attorney and say we have paid." He said the Lejarazus endured the added indignity of seeing demolition workers distribute their errant piñata inventory from amidst the rubble to passersby who happened upon the scene. "There were piñatas everywhere," Peters said. "You see people walking away with all these piñatas! The demolition company was giving away our piñatas!"
The relationship between French and the Lejarazus was rocky from the start, with F&F Ventures immediately listing points of alleged noncompliance – including exhibiting piñatas outdoors and keeping a small, free-standing storage unit – which the business owners quickly corrected. Such compliance issues were illegitimate, claimed Peters, but his clients acquiesced to their new landlords' demands to avoid the legal costs of challenging them. "They immediately hired an attorney and tried to push out my clients by making false allegations of default," Peters said. After that, the Lejarazus took extra steps to document and record their actions, including videotaping themselves filling out money orders for rent and dropping the payments off in a neighboring drop box for the landlords – including the February rent.
Peters said a writ of possession – not a wrecking ball – would've been the first step in an eviction proceeding. After that, removal of property would've taken place with the cooperation of a sheriff's deputy, and the locks would've been changed. None of those steps were followed. French sees it differently: "I'd ask whether it's customary to leave contents inside a building when you know it's going to be demolished on a certain date. This was not a surprise."
If that's an embellishment, it wouldn't be the first time French has been caught bending the truth. Two of the entrepreneur's others business ventures – Status Labs and Wiki-PR – have been criticized for their questionable ethics. Described as an image/reputation management firm, the former venture has reached out to freelance writers and bloggers offering cash incentives in exchange for mention of the firm's clients in articles. The tactic has been soundly criticized by media observers, who say it's tantamount to bribing already struggling journalists. Wiki-PR, meanwhile, was presented with a cease-and-desist notice from Wikipedia itself, banning the company from editing Wikipedia content. The company was found to have created 300 so-called "sockpuppet" accounts – fake profiles set up expressly to edit entries on behalf of clients.
Peters says it's equally misleading to suggest his clients had prior notice of a demolition. The property owners secured a demolition permit – in which they claimed the building was empty – from the city back in January, but that didn't constitute notification to the Lejarazus. "It's disingenuous," Peters said. "The problem is the process of gentrification wasn't working fast enough for these guys, and they couldn't wait the two years left on my clients' lease."
Bolstering Peters' argument is a temporary use permit application for a March 14 event during the SXSW Festival*[see correction below] on the site. The permit was filed on Dec. 8, more than a month before French says the Lejarazus were given notice of the demolition.
Sergio Lejarazu also objects to French's subsequent campaign to taint his reputation in an effort to discredit him. Lejarazu did purchase two bicycles last May, as French noted to other media, later found to be stolen, but the misdemeanor charge is the only mark on his record since immigrating to the U.S. over 20 years ago. And he says a family dog kept on premises during hours of operation never bit anyone as French now contends: "It was a little Pomeranian, but we took her away," Sergio said, in Spanish. "We almost died laughing; it's amazing how creative the imagination can be to do another harm."
The business is now gone, and along with it, the colorful array of piñatas from which the largely Latino residents of East Austin selected for their children's parties. In many ways, Jumpolin's sudden disappearance is emblematic of the vanishing Latino working class that once thrived in this part of Austin before gentrification began its inexorable advance.
But, then, Peters comes back to the point at hand. Gentrification may be a market-driven inevitability, but then, so is his legal response. The Lejarazus plan to sue French and his cohorts this week for damages. "I'm going to do my absolute best to make sure they regret their decision," Peters said.
Correction: This passage incorrectly referred to a "SXSW event"; the event is planned to take place during the period of the festival, but is not a SXSW event.
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