|After the Fall|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky - BT Senior Writer|
When the deck at Shuckers collapsed, only two waterfront restaurants remained open, but that is about to change
It was the second quarter in game four of the NBA finals. The Miami Heat had just scored a basket against the San Antonio Spurs, the crowd cheered, and then it all disappeared, replaced by a plume of smoke and dust.
This wasn’t the scene at San Antonio’s AT&T Stadium. This was Shuckers Bar & Grill in North Bay Village on the night of June 13, 2013, when a 120-foot-long wooden deck, which served as the restaurant’s outdoor dining area, suddenly gave way and fell into Biscayne Bay, sending 100 people, and assorted tables and chairs, into six feet of water.
Today a yellow membrane prevents floating pieces of the 1960s-era deck from infesting the rest of Biscayne Bay, while the restaurant itself, located on the bottom floor of the Best Western on the Bay Inn & Marina, remains gutted. No one died that night, but at least two dozen people were injured, according to the Miami Herald. So far, 13 lawsuits have been filed against Shuckers in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
But Shuckers might not be finished yet. Soon after the accident, the Grentner family, owners of Shuckers and the Best Western, submitted plans to build a new concrete deck, braced by concrete pilings.
Citing the pending lawsuits, Grentner declines to comment to the BT, but interim city manager (and former BT contributor) Frank Rollason says the building department is actively working with the owner of Shuckers. “The village is doing everything it can to help him get open,” Rollason adds. “We’re not slowing him up.”
Open since the late 1980s, Shuckers (1819 79th Street Cswy.) has attracted a following among South Florida residents who appreciated the restaurant’s waterfront views, simple American fare (including such seafood dishes as conch fritters, raw oysters, and fish sandwiches), and gritty atmosphere. Boaters could even dock their vessels by a 65-foot pier behind the restaurant and grab a table.
“It was a killer view, no question,” says Peter Zalewski, a real estate consultant who was at Shuckers the night of the accident. “And the prices for drinks were all right. You can get tanked at a fraction of the cost on the Beach.”
Shuckers’ competition in North Bay Village has dwindled over the years. Only about a dozen food-serving establishments -- including a Quiznos sandwich shop and a Dunkin’ Donuts -- currently operate along the Kennedy Causeway, also known as the 79th Street Causeway, the main thoroughfare of this square-mile community of three Biscayne Bay islands.
Alvin Blake, a 48-year resident of North Bay Village and a former city commissioner, remembers a time when restaurants lined the entire causeway. “We were like a restaurant row,” Blake recalls. At its height, during the 1960s and 1970s, NBV was home to The Place for Steak, Nick & Arthur’s, Billy’s Stone Crab, Luau, the Bonfire, and the Top Draw -- places that not only had good food but also featured performers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. (Martin even owned a NBV restaurant at the time, Dino’s.)
NBV’s restaurants and nightclubs attracted large crowds -- and trouble. Mobsters frequented the establishments and occasionally killed one another there. One infamous example was when Anthony “Big Tony” Esperti gunned down Thomas “the Enforcer” Altamura at The Place for Steak in 1967.
Prostitutes also frequented the area, so much so that a Miami Herald editorial commented in 1968 that “the strip [Kennedy Causeway] has fielded more prostitutes per foot than any series of dives east of Las Vegas. It is easy to get shot there and easier still to get robbed.”
Aiming to shed its sin city image, North Bay Village officials started clamping down on the nightclubs and prostitutes. By the 1980s, NBV had evolved into a bedroom community of blue-collar workers, retirees, and families. Business for many of NBV’s old causeway restaurants waned. Soon high-rises were replacing restaurants. During the early 2000s, the L-shaped White Star Plaza, which once housed several restaurants on the south side of Kennedy Causeway, was torn down and replaced by the 19-story Lexi condominium. Except for Oggi Ristorante and a couple of real estate offices, the Lexi’s first-floor retail spaces are empty.
Another residential tower will likely replace The Crab House, a buffet-style restaurant that operated at 1551 79th Street Cswy. for 37 years until this past June, when the eatery was closed down and fenced off. A company called B Developments had bought the 1.9-acre property for $7.6 million two months earlier. Sebastian Barbagallo, a director of B Developments, says his company plans to knock the restaurant down and build something else in its place. “We’re still developing the program, but mostly it’s going to be a mixed-use project with some residential and some retail on the lower floor,” he says.
B Developments also bought a 1.4-acre waterfront parking lot just west of Shuckers for $6.2 million in May. That lot was used by Shuckers customers prior to the accident. Barbagallo says B Developments is exploring the possibility of building a condo-hotel there, although it will accommodate Shuckers’ future parking needs. “We talk with Chris [Grentner],” he beams. “We have good relations.”
Barbagallo’s company bought the two properties not long after the North Bay Village City Commission created the Bay View Overlay District in January. Within that district, which covers waterfront parcels along Kennedy Causeway, developers can now build up to 340 feet in height, says Jim LaRue, NBV’s planning consultant. Before the district’s enactment, developers could only build up to 240 feet on those parcels.
The new buildings won’t just be residential. The overlay district requires developers to include commercial retail in their plans. “We need to retain the businesses,” LaRue explains. “We don’t want to lose that. That is what keeps a thriving urban center.”
Following the Shuckers accident and The Crab House shutdown in June, just two waterfront restaurants remain on the waterfront. Trio on the Bay, located at 1601 79th Street Cswy., still serves meals from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Thereafter, the 23,000-square-foot restaurant is rented out to club promoters for events.
Prior to Trio’s opening in 2011, Nick & Arthur’s, Billy’s on the Bay, Barchetta on the Bay, Roger’s, and Landry’s operated at that location. Pleasure Emporium owner Michael Pulwer was interested in turning the restaurant into an adult club featuring steak dinners and nude female dancers in 2009, but backed out following opposition from residents and city officials.
Benihana, meanwhile, has been serving sushi and teriyaki steaks inside its temple-shaped, two-story restaurant at 1665 79th Street Cswy. since 1973. Jeannie Means, vice president of marketing for Benihana, promises that her company has no plans to close the place. “I can assure you that no changes are intended or planned,” she says.
Benihana, a chain of 95 restaurants around the world founded by the late Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, has gone through major upheavals. Last year the Doral-based company was bought by the Angelo, Gordon & Co. Private Equity Group for $296 million. While the takeover was being negotiated, Cole Real Estate, a Phoenix-based real estate investment trust, bought the North Bay Village restaurant and one acre of land for $4 million in August 2012.
But don’t expect to see bulldozers ripping apart Benihana any time soon. Benihana signed a 20-year lease for the restaurant, which includes an option for six five-year extensions and the right of first refusal for the restaurant’s owners to buy the land.
Until recently, the Best Western hotel was also for sale. Barbagallo says the Grentner family took it and the restaurant off the market just three months ago. “We were never in negotiations,” Barbagallo adds.
Real estate consultant Zalewski, who is also the founder of CondoVultures.com, doubts there will be many new high-rise towers built in NBV in the near future, excepting the 285-unit Blu at North Bay Village, now under construction. Any new project proposed in NBV won’t break ground until 2016 or 2017. By then, Zalewski reasons, the development boom will be softening.
Barbagallo admits that NBV has its challenges. “Right now it’s a transit area,” he says. “People drive by at 50 miles per hour. They just don’t stop.”
Yet Barbagallo is hopeful that the restaurants B Developments will build on the causeway beneath its new projects will get some of those commuters to slow down. “It’s very important to create a destination,” he says, “to develop something very nice.”
Zalewski, a North Beach resident, is more interested in the prospects of Shuckers reopening. “I hope they open in time for the NBA playoffs in April and May,” he says. “I’d definitely go back. It’ll probably be the safest place around.”