The Biscayne Times

Aug 23rd
Worked Hard, Sold Well PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
April 2019

Plaza Tire & Auto Care finally hands over the keys

JPlaza_1ohn Cortez says he’s seen some crazy stuff during the 37 years he’s worked at Plaza Tire and Auto in the Edgewater neighborhood. There was the aftermath of a high-profile murder-suicide in the parking lot. The prostitutes who regularly hung out on the corner. And a couple of run-ins with drug addicts.

Most of the bizarre incidents Cortez witnessed took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Edgewater was a sketchy neighborhood. But now the crack houses have been replaced with luxury high-rises, and instead of streetwalkers and addled junkies, he sees people jogging, riding bikes, and walking dogs.

“I can’t tell you how many dogs were walked over here today,” says Cortez, now the managing owner of Plaza Tire and Auto.

Operating in Miami for the past 42 years, Plaza Tire and Auto Center is a well-known and respected repair shop. The weekly New Times named it Best Auto Mechanic in 2011 and Best Mechanic in 2017. That reputation, along with the creation of tens of thousands of new residential units over the past decade along Miami’s Biscayne Corridor, has provided plenty of business. In fact, since just 2014, Plaza Tire and Auto has issued 29,005 invoices. (Plaza Tire has been a Biscayne Times advertiser for ten years.)

“This place can literally be an insane asylum, the amount of business we do,” Cortez says.

Soon, though, Plaza Tire and Auto won’t be taking any more jobs. It’s shutting down.

Plaza_2Three months ago, Miami-based real estate company Crescent Heights bought the 12,100-square-foot property at 3005 NE 2nd Ave. The seller: Helen Cortez, John Cortez’s mother. The price: $4.1 million. And aside from making sure all the cars on the lot are serviced before May 30 -- the last day Plaza remains on the property -- John Cortez has been focused on finding jobs for his seven employees.

“These guys are my family. We’ve grown up together,” he says. “That’s the hardest part. I understand that stuff happens, but this doesn’t make it any easier.”

Plaza Tire will be replaced by a high-rise between 36 and 40 stories tall called 3000 Biscayne Boulevard. It’ll have around 750 residential units, 269,000 square feet of office space, a 38,450-square-foot grocery store, and 17,000 square feet of retail.

At least that’s the concept.

Russell Galbut, a co-managing partner of Crescent Heights, says 3000 Biscayne Boulevard is in the planning stages. “Obviously, whatever we do, we’d like to do something that’s great,” he tells the BT.

Founded in 1989 by Galbut, his cousin Bruce Menin, and Israeli-born developer Sonny Kahn, Crescent Heights has projects and properties in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Dallas, and London, according to the company’s website.

Its base of operations, however, is in Edgewater, at 2200 Biscayne Blvd., less than a mile from Plaza Tire, and it has an extensive portfolio here in South Florida, especially in South Beach. Near MacArthur Causeway, Crescent Heights will be building 600 Alton, a 44-story high-rise. Across the street from the Herzog & de Meuron-designed 1111 Lincoln building will be Crescent Heights’ 1212 Lincoln, a future hotel and retail complex.

Plaza_3And in Edgewater. Galbut and his Crescent Heights partners have been buying properties on both sides of Biscayne Boulevard between NE 2nd Avenue and Biscayne Bay, from NE 29th Street up to NE 31st Street. With the exception of the 3050 Biscayne office building, which Crescent Heights invested $20 million in renovating, Galbut says he intends to knock down every building they buy in Edgewater and build anew.

“We certainly have the minimum mass necessary for an SAP,” he says, referring to the “special area plan” provision in the city’s Miami 21 zoning code. That provision allows landowners with more than nine contiguous acres to ask the Miami City Commission for massive zoning changes.

Crescent Heights may also build a jai-alai and poker room facility on one of its properties. Last year Barbara Havenick, matriarch of the family that owns Magic City Casino in Little Havana, obtained a gaming license from the state for a jai-alai fronton and poker room (gambling but no slot machines) at 3195 NE 2nd Ave. on property leased from Crescent Heights.

Following a backlash from neighboring residents and real estate developers Jorge Perez and Craig Robins, the Miami City Commission passed legislation requiring that any new gambling facility be approved by four of five city commissioners. In spite of the new law, Izzy Havenick, Barbara’s son and Magic City Casino’s vice president, tells the BT via text that “we are exploring all our options at the moment.”

Four decades ago, John’s father, Gabe Cortez, saw Edgewater as a good option to relocate his shop after he was forced out of his first location in the Design District.

Originally from Chicago, Gabe Cortez came to Miami by way of his service in the Air Force. “He transferred to Homestead Air Force base right about the time I was born,” John says. “He had a house by the airport. When I was four years old, we moved into a house in Belle Meade. And my mother still lives there.”

Gabe Cortez opened Plaza Tire and Auto in 1977 in a plaza near the Moore Building at NE 2nd Avenue and 40th Street. But within five years, the landlord “pulled the lease from him,” John Cortez says, after a developer expressed interest in building something else there.

In August 1982, Plaza Tire moved to a 1932-era gas station. John Cortez, then 22, was enlisted to help and has been working there ever since. His brothers Michael and Andrew worked at the shop from time to time, too. (“We were in there helping out when we were ten,” Andrew Cortez told New Times in 2014.)

Back then, many of Edgewater’s pre-World War II elegant estates had been subdivided into apartments and left to deteriorate. Crime was rampant. “This was a dangerous neighborhood to be in,” John Cortez says. (See “Boom Bust Boom,” November 2016, for more Edgewater history.)

One particular night in the 1980s, Gabe Cortez went to the shop alone to check on a burglar alarm when he was jumped by an intruder, who broke in through the front window. The two men struggled until police arrived. “He [the intruder] was just coked out,” John Cortez says.

Then there was the time a car crashed into one of Plaza’s gas station poles. (Besides selling tires and fixing cars, Plaza sold gas until 1995.) The driver ran into the restroom and started screaming. When John and Gabe broke the door down, they found the man injecting his arm with a syringe.

In November 1986, Saundra Butterworth fatally shot her 16-year-old son, Robert, four times in the chest and then herself by the phone booth in Plaza Tire’s parking lot hours after it closed. Prior to shooting herself, according to a Miami Herald story, she used the phone there to leave an angry message to an aide of her ex-husband, Bob Butterworth, who would be elected Florida’s attorney general a day later.

By 2008, soon after Midtown Miami was built, John Cortez says he noticed that Edgewater was changing. As the condo units east of Biscayne Boulevard filled, business at Plaza was increasing.

And then Gabe Cortez got sick. “He had a very aggressive cancer that started in his face with a little spot,” John Cortez remembers. By the time that spot was checked out, the cancer had spread. “That was 2012. He battled it for two years.”

But Gabe Cortez kept working. “He literally worked until two weeks before he died,” John Cortez says. “It was what he woke up for.”

Gabe Cortez passed away in November 2014. He was 77 years old. Yet just prior to his death, Crescent Heights made Gabe its first offer -- $1.8 million for the property. (Gabe Cortez had bought the building in September 1990 for $300,000.) John Cortez told his dad to reject the offer. “I told him, number one, that money was way too low and, number two, we’re not ready to retire yet. I still got a long way to go.”

Helen Cortez inherited the property after Gabe’s death. Crescent Heights kept making offers. For a year the family directly negotiated with Crescent Heights partner Sonny Kahn. “First time I met him, he was the nicest guy in the world,” John Cortez says. “He made us laugh. The last meeting, he was a little more serious. More direct. He was saying, ‘I already turned in my plans. I don’t need your building.’”

Galbut confirms that Crescent Heights did have designs that didn’t include Plaza Tire if the Cortez family didn’t sell. “I think having it [Plaza] as a corner property is important, but it wasn’t vital,” he says. (Crescent Heights still doesn’t own Daddy’s Cash Pawn Shop, immediately north of Plaza Tire. An employee tells the BT that the developers have made offers, but so far his bosses haven’t budged, adding, “The business is too good here.”)

Eventually, Kahn and the Cortez family settled on a price of $4.6 million. Then Kahn complained that an environmental study showed it would cost $1.5 million to clean up accumulated contamination, John Cortez recalls, and slashed his price to $4 million. After further negotiations, the sale closed at $4.13 million in January 2019.

“It’s probably the highest price per square foot for a NE 2nd Avenue [Edgewater] property ever,” declares Jamie Maniscalco, a Keyes commercial broker who represented Helen Cortez during the transaction. Most properties along NE 2nd Avenue trade for $245 a square foot; the Plaza Tire property sold at nearly $345 a square foot.

And while many of Edgewater’s buildings and lots are still family-owned, Maniscalco predicts that “slowly, piece by piece” those properties will be bought by large developers.

That demand is increasing the property values, which in turn is increasing rents and property taxes. In 2015, John Cortez says he paid $22,000 to cover Plaza Tire’s property taxes. In 2017, he paid $47,000. “Basically, that’s what gentrification does to you. When you have all this development, you have lots of new customers, but what they [developers] do is price you out of the neighborhood.”

Cortez knows of at least three longtime auto repair shops that have closed in Edgewater and Wynwood in the past three years. “Your choices for getting your car repaired are slowly shrinking,” he notes.

Fortunately, most of Plaza Tire’s employees are finding work at other repair shops around Miami-Dade. John, who now lives in Hollywood, says he plans to spend some time fishing and camping while figuring out what he’ll do in the future.

“My problem is, we’re so busy, I don’t have time to plan,” he says. “I don’t have time to do research or anything like that. So once I don’t have to worry about getting up at 4:45 in the morning and driving here, I can do my research and figure out things.”

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