By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Fermin Vazquez's widow is not certain her husband's zoning fight with neighbors of his North Oak Cliff business and their City Hall allies was the ultimate reason he put a .380-caliber handgun to his chest last month and fired a bullet into his heart, but she says there are clues it was. "It made him depressed," Alma Vazquez says. "It happened in his office. That's where he went to do it."
The 29-year-old operator of Lucano Transports, a company that runs buses to the interior of Mexico, died only two days before an important deadline in a year-old battle over his business. Bowing to pressure from neighborhood activists in the gentrifying area, Vazquez had promised the city in late February he would close the little depot on West Davis Street by July 31 and move.
Vazquez had only two payments left on the $2,124-a-month mortgage, but he conceded to city officials that the business, which in five years expanded from running small vans to 52-seat coaches, had outgrown the corner lot and the 1960s gas station that served as the depot. In the five months he had available to find a new space, he had located a site, but had not completed the move, Alma Vazquez says.
In the days after her husband's death, Vazquez was consumed with making arrangements to bury him, taking over the business and finding a way to continue as the new head of her family. She was left to raise an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, make payments on the family home a few blocks from the depot and run a business with ongoing loans and insurance bills.
A few days after his death, she put her husband's body on one of his buses and shipped it to his hometown of Matehuala, Mexico, for burial. Less than a week after she returned, on August 7, a Dallas code enforcement officer wrote the business the first ticket for failing to close. The next week, there was another. "I need to make money. My babies need to eat. I can't close," Vazquez explains.
The 30-year-old, wearing a black dress, a black hair ribbon and a small gold cross, is composed and somber as she tells her story. When her husband was alive, she worked handling bills and paperwork, but he ran the small family-owned concern. A brother and other family members run Lucano depots in five other cities and one in Mexico.
Vazquez, who speaks only limited English, enlisted the help of Amanda Moreno, the owner of four small businesses on Davis Street, and Jamie Chapa, manager of Moreno's Oak Cliff Coffee House, to help her approach the city. She wanted more time to make the move. Moreno called City Manager Ted Benavides for a meeting and was told that Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels would meet with them.
When Vazquez and Chapa arrived at City Hall last Monday, they say they were hardly prepared for what they were about to confront.
In the room were City Councilwoman Laura Miller, Daniels, Code Compliance Director James Mongaras and several staff members, including an assistant city attorney.
"It seemed like we were in a room where only Laura Miller was present," Chapa says. "The rest were like those little dogs in the rear of your car. Their heads bob up and down, like they were animated. She offered her condolences, but she refused to give us any additional time. She said she fully intended to file a lawsuit to shut the business down. 'Either close it down or we'll shut you down.' Those were real close to her exact words."
Vazquez, who recalls the same words, asked as a compromise whether she could continue to sell tickets at the depot and load buses elsewhere. "Miller said, 'I don't know about that. The only thing I know is your CO [certificate of occupancy] is revoked.'"
Chapa says he asked if Vazquez could be granted six months, then 30 days, then one week. "When we got to a week, Laura and the city attorney left the conference room to have a private conversation. There was this burst of laughter from them, and they came back. The attorney said, 'I'm sorry. The answer is no.'"
Miller, commenting a week after the meeting, says, "I have a lot of compassion for this woman, but this is a situation that has been going on for three years, and this is a Texas corporation, not a small one-location business run by one widow. They made a firm legal commitment to the city in writing that they'd be out of that facility by July 31, and they really did nothing to meet their obligation as a corporation."
She says Alma Vazquez "has had 27 days as of today to get out of that facility" and in effect has been given an extension because the city hasn't padlocked the depot's doors.
Miller confirms that she called code enforcement officials--in the first few days of August--to get them to start writing tickets and applying a little heat.
Mongaras, whose officers began carrying out that enforcement within days, says, "The city is not unsympathetic to the family, but the city also has the responsibility to enforce its ordinances. There was a written agreement, signed by Mr. Vazquez, that he was going to move the business. Five months had passed, and it appears nothing was in motion to make that come about." It's city policy, not Miller's, he says. Miller did much of the talking at the meeting with Vazquez because Chapa directed his comments at her.
To some, Miller's inflexibility toward Alma Vazquez confirms what they already suspect.
Miller has made it clear in the past that she has little tolerance for the tire shops, rim stores and slightly unkempt, Hispanic-owned businesses that make up much of Davis Street, the commercial strip closest to her home in Kessler Park and other increasingly expensive Anglo neighborhoods north of that commercial drag.
Over the past several years, the former Dallas Observer columnist has told reporters she'd like to see Starbucks, The Gap, Barnes & Noble and Ann Taylor shops move into the area. As for the brightly painted, modest businesses on Davis now, she told one writer she was going to hit them with a zero-tolerance approach to code violations. "I'm going to go up and down that motherfucking street, and if they don't shape up and comply, I'm gonna close those fuckers down," Miller said.
While the three-term councilwoman finds the street's profusion of two-bay auto repair garages at odds with her plans for the area, most appeared on a recent afternoon to be busy filling the down-market niche of keeping 20-year-old Hondas and Toyotas running for their working-class owners. "I own this shop. Business is good," said one oil-stained owner, who declined to give his name for fear of being embroiled in the Lucano fight.
"It cuts down racial lines with her," Chapa says of Miller. Adds Moreno: "Hispanics on the street, everyone, is afraid Laura Miller will send code enforcement to shut them down. She wants to close Mrs. Vazquez. She won't give her a week. These people have no sympathy. What if it happened to your own husband or brother or father?"
When the Anglo-owned deli City Harvest ran into land-use problems last year, Miller took to the radio to raise money to build a proper parking lot, Chapa says. When a less-spiffy, Hispanic-owned restaurant, El Pulpo, had similar problems in 1999, she did not. "I asked her [at the meeting] if she would go on the radio and help us raise money," Chapa says. "She said no."
Miller says she is far from hostile to Hispanic businesses and has been helpful to Hispanics on the street. "I've helped many Hispanic businesses and landowners when I found $2.4 million to put into the Bishop Arts District," she says, referring to part of the street hosting a mix of shops and restaurants.
Several Anglo-dominated groups and neighborhood activists who have crusaded against Lucano Transports say they are firmly behind Miller's moves.
"I'm not trying to be insensitive, but these are the battles we fight every day in Oak Cliff," says Amy Autrey, president of the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association. "It's upsetting, but her husband had [five] months to put his affairs in order, and he didn't."
Autrey says the neighborhood has plans for the Lucano property. "This neighborhood is growing, and an important part of that is getting rid of the bus line," she says. Under a planning process unknown to Alma Vazquez until earlier this year, her bus depot property is scheduled to become a park under the Bishop Davis Urban Design Study, adopted by the City Council in November 1997. Deed records show Vazquez's husband purchased the property in 1996. It's valued for property taxes at $115,700. The city would be required to condemn it and pay Vazquez if it ever follows through on the plan.
Rick Garza, president of the Kings Highway Conservation District, says Alma Vazquez has had enough time to move, even since her husband died. "They've already had 23 days, according to my records," says Garza, who bought several apartment buildings within a block of the station in 1999 and is now renovating them. "We're unanimous against it. There are cars all over, buses having trouble maneuvering, people all over waiting for the bus," he says.
The station sits on a loose border between an area chock-full of expensively renovated period homes with new SUVs in their drives, and blue-collar apartments mixed in with more modest frame homes.
Ed Spence, a lawyer who owns buildings in the neighborhood, says he was responsible as Miller's appointee to the board of adjustment for initiating the action that resulted in the city moving to close Lucano.
He says the matter is not a battle of upper-income Anglos versus blue-collar Hispanics carried out on the Davis Street fault line. Instead he calls it "a clash of American notions of city planning, which is not the sole dominion of white people, and the laissez-faire world of Mexican business. In Mexico, these buses discharge their riders at the market, at street corners. There is no terminal."
In late 1998, two years after Vazquez began operating his business legally, Dallas passed an ordinance prohibiting bus depots from settling within 500 feet of residential areas. The change was made in an attempt to regulate the explosion of buses and vans making direct Dallas-to-Mexico runs. Oak Cliff was being overrun with "renegade" bus operators, some with a bus or two and no terminal at all, operating out of houses and apartment buildings. Residents complained of 40-foot buses parking on the streets overnight.
Because Fermin Vazquez's depot was in place before the new ordinance passed, he was affected only if his business was found to be a nuisance. Last fall, Spence initiated that nuisance complaint, he says.
Rather than fight it, Vazquez gave in and agreed in late February to close the terminal by August 1. "He surrendered," Spence says.
According to Mike Coker, a zoning consultant who represented Vazquez, he cut the deal directly with Miller to give Vazquez five months to move.
Two days before Vazquez was found dead, Gilberto Cortez, publisher of the Spanish-language weekly La Prensa, says he had a long talk with him about his business troubles. Vazquez, whose death the Dallas Medical Examiner's Office is calling a suicide and the Dallas Police Department is still investigating, talked about being hit from two sides. "His revenue was way down because so many others have gotten into the business," Cortez says. At the same time, some of his competitors had been able to avoid regulation while he was being subjected to the city's powers in the most direct way.
"He said he had found a new property, but he thought his location [on Davis] was so important, he wasn't happy to move," Cortez says.
If that's true, then maybe visions of tidy Ann Taylor shops and park spaces had something to do with the death of Fermin Vazquez, as his widow believes.
Last week, Alma Vazquez was busy looking for a new location and was fairly certain she had found one in an industrial section near Interstate 30. Once she's gone, she says she'd like to turn the little gas station at 937 West Davis into a soup kitchen, teeming with homeless men and addicts sleeping in the street. It would stand as a little "thank-you" gift for all the compassion her neighbors have shown.