Liz Lambert’s Hotel Helped Gentrify Austin’s South Congress. In A New Documentary, She Looks Back.

“It’s a complicated issue and one that I think that we need to talk about, particularly at this time when Austin seems to be growing faster than I’ve ever seen it grow and changing faster than I’ve ever seen a change.”

By Laura RiceMarch 16, 2021 1:20 pm,

If you’ve been to Austin in the past 20 years or so, you’ve likely strolled along South Congress Avenue. The street on the opposite side of the lake from the Texas Capitol Building is filled with highly-rated restaurants and lots of trendy shops. But 20 years ago, it looked a whole lot different.

The change began, in part, when Liz Lambert bought the San José Motel in 1995 for about $500K. She left her job as a lawyer and eventually turned the building into a boutique hotel, displacing the residents who called the motel home. The time leading up to the demolition is tracked in the documentary “Through The Plexi-Glass: The Last Days Of The San José.” The film has been around in various forms for more than a decade, but it’s getting an official world premiere at SXSW this week. Lambert co-directed.

What South Congress looked like when she bought the hotel:

It was at a time when there was nobody parked on South Congress. There was no traffic on South Congress. I just happened to move into the neighborhood in Travis Heights and I spent a lot of time at the Continental Club. The San José Motel was directly across from the Continental Club, and I peered out the window from a bar stool at it for months before I ever even thought about inquiring whether they would sell it or not.”

Her relationship with the motel’s residents:

After about a year, it was really clear to me that I couldn’t raise the money to renovate the hotel without being there full time and making it a full time effort. And so I was there day in and day out. And so, of course, I had relationships with folks who lived there.”

a man with a towel around his neck holding money

Images courtesy "Through The Plexi-Glass: The Last Days Of The San José."

A patron of the San José Motel in the mid 1990s.

Telling the residents she was finally closing to redevelop:

“I think what was surprising was the number of people that understood because we spent our days, you know, around one another, I think that they began, a lot of people, to root for me being able to shut down the motel and, you know, take it to another level. The accommodations weren’t particularly nice. I mean, I nailed curtains up to the wall and there was all kinds of stuff going on there that, you know, I don’t think even people that lived there were that sad to see it shut down.”

On helping to spark a wave of South Congress gentrification:

“So many mixed emotions. You know… I think I was part of that first wave. There was a lot of things pointing in that direction and kind of lining up at that time. I think South Congress would have become gentrified one way or the other. Of course, I have mixed emotions about it. I mean, I, I have recently moved out of the neighborhood. You know, I love South Congress. I love the local businesses. I love South Austin, very much, but it has become a whole different animal these days.”

How she sorts through the morals of change and capitalism:

Anybody you talk to in Austin loved Austin, you know, 10 years ago or that time right before some other person got here. And we can’t stop that change. But what we can do is be very sensitive about it and very thoughtful about it.”

exterior picture of the redeveloped Hotel San José (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An exterior photo of the Hotel San José in 2009.

Why the film is coming out now:

“The truth is that I’ve had this footage for, you know, I shot every day, lots of the day when I was working the front desk at the San José Motel. And I put my camera down the day that we shut the motel. So we made the first cut of the documentary three or four years later after the San José was already what you know it to be today. But we never finished that version of the documentary. We were always going to go back and revisit it and we never released it. We, you know, show it at – I think they still show it at the San José. But it was always my intention to go back to it. And that was one of the, you know, happenstances of COVID. You know, it’s been on the top of my list, of my to do list every time I open a new calendar for the year, I’m like, I’m going to finish a documentary this year. But the slowdown of COVID and sitting still for long enough, gave me the opportunity to go back to some of the folks that I began making the documentary with and they had time. And then it also opened up the opportunity to cut new music for the documentary because there were musicians that were at home and willing to, you know, sing into an iPhone or do something in their home studios for the movie, and so all of that just kind of came together. And I guess it’s one of the blessings of COVID if there is any such thing.”

Her current affiliation with the Bunkhouse hotel group she started:

“I got fired. I got fired from Bunkhouse, which was a company I started around 2005, [I got fired] in September of the year before last. I am still the owner of El Cosmico, though, by the way, and very much involved in El Cosmico day in and day out. I’m also somewhat involved in a couple of the other hotels that Bunkhouse manages. But the New Orleans project is a hotel that I own. And so that’s why I’m working on – New Orleans.”

Her feelings on Austin’s current state of change:

“I love Austin. I, you know, I’ve traveled all over. I’ve lived in New York. I always feel like I’m coming home when I come back to Austin. There’s still so much that’s so special about it. And, you know, for me as a West Texan, there really was never any thought that I would end up anywhere else.”

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