The Biscayne Times

Jul 03rd
Mural, Mural on the Wall PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terence Cantarella   
August 2010

The lights are off, the windows and doors are boarded up, and the girls on the corner are gone. Gone, too, are the unsavory characters and unsuspecting tourists who have converged at Miami’s notorious City Inn hotel for the past two and a half decades.

But it wasn’t the hundreds of calls to police over the years, or the 75 recently issued county and state violations that forced the 12-story inn’s closure this past June. It was the mesh advertising banners hanging on the outside walls, a familiar sight to I-95 commuters as they approach NW 79th Street.

This past February, Miami-Dade County’s Unsafe Structures Board upheld an earlier county determination that the City Inn is “dangerous to human life and welfare.” Among the violations noted during an inspection: an accumulation of debris, unsanitary conditions, deteriorated structural parts, and fire, electrical, and mechanical hazards.

The owners, brothers Sam and Judah Burstyn, were given two options: Demolish the building or repair it and pass a 40-year “recertification” inspection. The Burstyns chose to salvage their hotel, corrected the violations, and submitted the required inspection report -- which was promptly rejected.


The problem: The Burstyns first need a permit approving repairs they made to the building’s outer walls. The county’s building department, meanwhile, won’t issue that permit because of an ongoing legal fight over the large advertising banners (a.k.a. murals) attached to those walls. And since a county-imposed time limit to obtain all necessary permits expired in May, the City Inn’s certificate of occupancy was revoked, forcing the owners to vacate and board up the building.

For the Burstyns, it is now a race against time. This fall the deadline for bringing the property back into full compliance will also expire, giving the county the right to demolish the City Inn. The Burstyns, however, are mounting an interesting legal defense that could not only put them back in business, but could also set a countywide precedent for commercial property owners.

The battle first began for the City Inn back in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma blew through town and ripped large chunks of concrete from the hotel’s façade, crushing at least two cars in the parking lot below (no injuries). Following the storm, the Burstyns repaired their walls and, according to John Dellagloria, the Burstyns’ lawyer, the work was approved by the county building department. (The hotel is located in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.) But, he says, the building department recently revoked that approval because of the banners attached to those walls.

Building department spokeswoman Miriam Rossi tells the BT that the department’s concern is “the manner in which the banners have been installed on the façade.” In a high wind, she explains, they could effectively become sails and tear off parts of the building.

The county’s zoning department, meanwhile, has its own complaint: The murals are illegal. County law forbids the installation of signs within 600 feet of an expressway, and the City Inn is less than 150 feet from I-95. Other county laws deem such signs a public nuisance. Furthermore, according to department spokeswoman Hilda Castillo, building “murals” are explicitly prohibited in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

Last year the county went to court seeking an injunction against the hotel’s owners. The Burstyns argued that the county code is unconstitutional because it doesn’t offer a variance procedure. They also argued that, in this instance, the county doesn’t have the authority to enforce state statutes relating to murals. The court agreed on both counts and dismissed the case.

According to the Burstyns’ attorney, that ruling means the county’s punitive actions are illegal. He is appealing those actions and insists the City Inn will reopen for the upcoming winter season.

The county is not alone in its opposition to the Burstyn banners. Back in 2007, the Florida Department of Transportation ordered that the murals be removed after finding them to be in violation of Florida laws that forbid the unpermitted installation of signs within view of an interstate highway system. The Burstyns’ appeal of that order was heard just last month. The court had not ruled by press time.

Even with favorable rulings all around, the Burstyns would still have to submit to public hearings for a zoning variance to legally hang their contentious murals. That’s a lot of legal wrangling, but the lucrative nature of the banners almost certainly makes it worthwhile. It’s not clear how much revenue the City Inn draws from the advertisements, but past media reports have estimated that a single mural can draw anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a month in advertising fees, depending on its size and location. With two of the largest murals in the county, and roughly commuter 100,000 views per day, the City Inn’s advertising fees are likely at the upper end of the spectrum. Even though the building is shuttered, advertisers presumably continue to pay. (Sam Burstyn did not return messages from the BT.)

Ironically, the City Inn may not end up taking advantage of a favorable ruling for long. Two years ago, after this reporter spent a harrowing night at the City Inn (“Edifice Complex,” August 2008), owner Sam Burstyn told the BT he was hoping to demolish the hotel and replace it with 356 units of workforce housing. More recently, county records show that one Edgar Duarte visited the building department in May, claiming to represent a party who has a contract pending to purchase the property. (Duarte did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.)

Nevertheless the Burstyns hope to hang murals on other properties they own in South Florida, according to paperwork filed with a state agency. And of course a courtroom triumph for the Burstyns could mean a potential triumph for every other commercial property owner in Miami-Dade who can qualify for a variance to install giant advertising murals.


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