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Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor   
June 2019

La Placita’s mural appeal continues a long feud

DLaPlacita_1ressed in a natty dark-gray three-piece suit, restaurateur Maximo Silva is at the podium in the city commission chambers of Miami City Hall. Joey Cancel, Silva’s business partner and similarly dressed in a navy-blue three-piece suit, stands beside him. It’s past 11:00 p.m. during a marathon meeting of the Miami Historic Environmental and Preservation board on March 5.

Silva and Cancel are presenting a case that would prevent them from having to paint over the Puerto Rican flag mural that covers nearly the entire exterior of the Balans building in the city’s MiMo Historic District, where landlords and tenants must adhere to a strict color palette for properties along Biscayne Boulevard.

Cancel and Silva, along with fellow Puerto Ricans celebrity chef José Mendin and telenovela star Julian Gil, own La Placita, the Upper Eastside restaurant in the former Balans space that pays homage to their home island’s historic market plaza in San Juan. They commissioned Puerto Rican artist Hector Collazo Hernandez to paint the flag on the building.

Since late December, La Placita’s owners have been feuding with their residential neighbors and historic activists over the unauthorized paint job, noise from the loud music being played at the restaurant, and patrons parking on people’s properties and speeding along narrow, residential NE 68th Street. (See “An Opening Act with Controversy,” February 2019.)

The fight took on ethnic overtones when Gil posted a video on Instagram alleging unidentified residents had called him, Collazo Hernandez, and others “motherfucking Latinos” among other insults on the day the mural went up. Over the past six months, the animosity has been on full display at public hearings, with no clear resolution in sight.

LaPlacita_2Forced to seek permission from the city’s preservation office in order for the mural to remain, Silva and Cancel escalated the conflict during their March 5 pitch. Silva tells board members that he and his partners have been treated badly for trying to generate excitement in the MiMo Historic District with a destination restaurant that honors their Puerto Rican roots.

Silva points to a poster board Cancel is holding up. “Characters like this neighbor right here who said that she would much rather see prostitution, drug dealing, and hookers on Biscayne Boulevard,” Silva says. “They’re yelling and saying crazy things that were out of context. We don’t deserve that.”

The poster board is a blown-up image of a comment one homeowner, Caroline DeFreze, made on Facebook. It read: “La Placita painting a pr flag on the side of the old balans building without approval from the hep board and with a police escort and oh look the mayor turns up to support. Francis Suarez parks illegally in a resi neighborhood. Who’s getting paid? So tacky. Miami is so corrupt. bring back the prostitutes and the crack heads they were much nicer.”

Ten days later, following the preservation board’s 5-3 vote denying La Placita’s application and ordering the mural’s removal, DeFreze hit back at the owners during a citizens presentation at the city commission’s March 14 meeting.

DeFreze, who worked for 15 years as a Miami Beach community liaison official, showed commissioners a short video depicting brief interviews with her neighbors about the traffic and parking problems created by La Placita, as well as clips of police cars responding to noise complaints as music from the restaurant blares in the background. The footage also featured a montage of photographs of Mayor Francis Suarez posing with the restaurant owners when it first opened and as the mural was painted. In a voiceover, DeFreze says, “I blame the city, from the politicians and the administrators, for sending mixed messages on what they can and cannot do, for ignoring the laws the neighborhood has imposed on themselves for the benefit of the whole, for pitting a business against its residents, and for not being objective and proactive.”

LaPlacita_3DeFreze and fellow neighbor Mariella Lopez de Albear persuaded city commissioners to sponsor a resolution closing the entrance to NE 68th Street, which was adopted a month later, on April 11. (NE 67th Street and NE 68th Street are linked a block east of Biscayne Boulevard, forming a U-shaped roadway.)

Miami-Dade County has yet to sign off on the closure. Still, the stage was set for a big showdown May 23, when the Miami City Commission was scheduled to consider La Placita’s appeal of the preservation board’s denial.

During a recent interview, Cancel tells Biscayne Times that he and his partners don’t want an antagonistic relationship with the neighboring homeowners and MiMo Historic District activists, but that they believe they were backed into a corner. In addition to the mural being denied, the city issued citations against La Placita for having a sidewalk café and valet operation without proper permits.

“We’ve had every regulatory agency harassing and threatening us,” Cancel says. “It was very stressful because we’re trying to provide a service and getting hell for it.”

Raising previous arguments, Cancel insists that they followed instructions provided to them by city officials when they sought to put up the mural. He claims they were informed that obtaining a special events permit from the police department was all they needed.

It was only after homeowners and activists raised concerns that they’d skipped over the preservation board that Suarez’s office and city manager Emilio Gonzalez told them they were wrong, Cancel says.

As far as the other complaints about noise and traffic, La Placita has taken steps to minimize both, he adds. “I think some of the animosity is dying down,” Cancel says. “We’ve turned down the music, we’re directing the traffic, and we’re doing everything that is our responsibility.”

Whether his optimism proves true remains to be seen. The city commission deferred La Placita’s appeal to a future hearing date at Cancel’s request. He tells the BT that he is working with the planning director, the preservation office, and the MiMo Biscayne Association on a possible compromise to the mural controversy. One solution might be the recommendation from Miami historic preservation officer Warren Adams that La Placita’s owners paint the building white and incorporate a neon art installation that honors Puerto Rico while adhering to MiMo Historic District guidelines.

However, Cancel says, it’s premature to discuss what the possible compromise will look like. “We are going to sit down and look for an alternative that is suitable for everyone,” he says. “So we are happy about avoiding the drama of going into another hearing where everyone is throwing stones.”

Developer Avra Jain, owner of the Vagabond Group, is a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association, which is part of the negotiations with La Placita. Jain tells the BT that it’s important all business and property owners follow the MiMo Historic District building regulations.

“As a developer, when you choose to build a project in a historic district, you know you are doing it willingly and have to follow a certain set of guidelines,” Jain says. “Some things are not subject to interpretation. If one building does it, it sets a precedent for other buildings to do it.”

Jain confirms that she’s been discussing with Cancel and his partners possible solutions to rectify the mural controversy. “It is too early to disclose what some of those conversations have produced,” she says. “But we’ve been talking about how we can turn this into a positive direction for everybody.”

The homeowners are not convinced there will be an amicable ending. DeFreze, whose five-bedroom house is adjacent to La Placita’s parking lot, says she and her neighbors remain leery of any discussions because they have not been asked to get involved in the peace talks. She also notes that deferral of a controversial neighborhood zoning issue is a common tactic used to wear down opposition.

“There is some suspicion because Avra, the preservation office, and the planning department are talking to them behind closed doors,” DeFreze says. “They should be more inclusive.”

However, DeFreze admits that the traffic congestion has calmed down, now that the excitement of La Placita’s grand opening is wearing off. “But we still get people pulling into lots and doing three-point turns in driveways,” she says. “And there are individuals who just loiter and drink beers outside my house and don’t go inside the restaurant.”

Furthermore, she highly doubts La Placita’s owners can afford to paint over the mural since that is what attracts people to their establishment. “If they take down the flag, they will lose business,” she says. “It’s a tourist destination. People just come by to take pictures of the building.”

Still, it appears she is willing to talk to the owners. On a recent Tuesday, Cancel came over to her house after she went to La Placita to complain that they were again playing the music too loud, DeFreze says. It was the first time the two had a face-to-face conversation.

“He told me that I was trying use them as leverage to close off the street,” she says. “I told him I’d rather not have the street closed since I will now have to go around to 67th Street to get on Biscayne Boulevard.”

When Cancel went back to La Placita, she says, he lowered the music’s volume.

 

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