East Austin Conflict
Conflicting stories surround controversial demolition of East Austin piñata store
What was once a piñata and party goods store in East Austin is now just another pile of rubble in the ongoing gentrification battles of the growing city.
There is a lot of conflicting information in the “he said, they said” story swirling around Jumpolin. The former piñata and party store at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez was demolished on Thursday, February 12, by ACI Design Build.
The owners of Jumpolin and tenants of the building Sergio and Monica Lejarazu say they had no idea that the building was going to be razed and were in shock when they drove up to see demolition crews tearing down the place — with everything still inside. Their entire business and livelihood — store inventory, cash registers and other property — were smashed in pieces on the ground.
“I was driving by like any other day, taking my daughter to school,” Sergio told CultureMap. “That’s when I saw it: my life’s work under the bulldozer.”
Sergio admits that they had received a notice from the building’s owners to vacate the premises two days before, which they immediately handed over to their attorney, Doran Peters. “But I swear to God, they never gave us a notice they would demolish.”
According to ACI Design Build, a demo notice was placed on the building once the permits were obtained, which the city verifies were properly filed. But Peters, a partner at Hajjar Peters LLP, asserts that an order to vacate the premises and a demolition two days later is far from due process of law.
"I swear to God, they never gave us a notice they would demolish," said Sergio Lajarazu, owner of Jumpolin.
“You can’t demo somebody’s building unless you get a court order for eviction. It’s the most basic, fundamental principle of law there is. The Lejarazus had a right to that premises; after a notice to vacate, then you have to go to court and get a court order and provide proper legal notice to my client. They didn’t want to do that because they knew they were going to lose, because my client did not default on the lease.”
The property, which includes the building in which Jumpolin was operated and another building behind it (not associated with the Jumpolin business), was bought in October 2014 by F&F Real Estate Ventures, an LLC owned by Jordan French and Darius Fisher. French and Fisher are also CEO and president, respectively, of Status Labs, an Austin image management company that offers public relations services to clients.
French told CultureMap that at least three notices were given to the Lejarazus via email and certified mail beginning in October 2014. The notices had to do with defects and lease violations including a dog on the property that supposedly bit somebody, helium tanks that French said posed a dangerous explosion threat and which the fire marshal was investigating (and that the Lejarazus did not have a proper permit for), and owed past due rent and fees related to inspections.
However, according to the Austin fire code sections 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52.1, helium is one of the materials not requiring a permit. And Michelle Tanzola, Public Information and Marketing Manager for the Austin Fire Department, said that the AFD records do not show any pending violations of fire code or investigations at the property.
“As far as we are concerned, our inspectors were there on December 12, 2014 and January 15, 2015 respectively, and found no violations. The owner may have confused us with Code Compliance, a separate department.”
The Lejarazus do not argue with the fact that they had received several such notices since the new owners bought the property in the fall. On the day before Thanksgiving they received a notice to remove a storage container and piñatas within four days, over the holiday weekend. These were items they had written permission through their lease with the previous owner to have on premises. Other notices for past due rent and fees were given, though Peters says the tenants were not behind on their rent.
"They weren’t making a living selling piñatas; they were selling something else. I don’t want to speculate what that is," said property owner Jordan French.
“They had paid their rent in full; the ‘default’ was cured even though they were not in default,” Peters said. “The bottom line is, [the owners] have plans to build on that piece of property, and my clients’ contractual right to have possession of the premises just was getting in the way of that.”
French, however, said that he believes the piñata and party business was only a front for the real dealings of the store. He points to an arrest record in May 2014 that shows Sergio was arrested for buying two stolen bicycles from a police informant. It’s unclear whether he knew the bikes were stolen when he bought them; in any case Peters maintains that the arrest is completely irrelevant to this case.
“Probably their livelihood was selling helium and stolen bicycles,” French said. “They weren’t making a living selling piñatas; they were selling something else. I don’t want to speculate what that is.” However, he went on to suggest that it was likely “uncontrolled substances.” “That’s just my opinion, though,” French stated.
When asked why he would demolish the building with the inventory and property inside, he said, “You're assuming we knew something was inside. Sergio was not selling piñatas at the location — he had piñatas at a neighboring location — in the weeks leading up to the demo.”
French also pointed out that the situation is not over a residential lease. “The Lejarazus weren’t living there. This is a totally different ballgame. That building isn’t even conducive as a retail space to be selling piñatas,” he added.
But the Lejarazus have been running their business at the property for eight years, and another three years before that in a different location. They sold moonwalks that Sergio built himself and piñatas imported from Mexico as well as those that Monica hand-made in the store. “Customers would come in and say, ‘I want a piñata like that one, only can you change this or that,” she said. “Sometimes they would bring their children to see their piñatas being made.”
Peters filed a lawsuit on the Lejarazus behalf on Friday at 3 pm. “This type of situation with evictions happens in gentrification all over town,” Peters said. “But I’ve never seen a situation like this, where they just demolished someone’s building or house without due process of law. They were indecent about the whole thing; they lacked any sort of compassion or empathy in this.”
“We don’t understand what is going on. We don’t even feel safe right now. We don’t have any resources to fight these type of people,” said Sergio.
“At this moment, we have nothing,” Monica interjected. “We have to start again. We have money for two or three more days, and we don’t know what we will do after that.”
As far as the future of the site at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez, French was vague. He said that the still-standing building behind Jumpolin will not be demolished. The Jumpolin site will get cleaned up, landscaped and beautified, like the Big Red Sun property on the adjacent corner.
“Say you have a house that was infested by roaches,” French described it. “You have to clean that up.”