By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
This past summer Elio Rojas had a little problem: two cars and only one driveway. It was possible, of course, to park both cars in the same driveway, but that was an inconvenience, an inconvenience Rojas figured he could do without. So Rojas, president of Miami's influential Latin Quarter Association, devised a simple solution: sacrifice some lawn in front of his house at 3014 SW Fifth St. in west Little Havana, and build a second driveway.
Rojas had another idea. He telephoned Luis Prieto-Portar, director of the city's Public Works Department, whom he'd met several months earlier at the popular Little Havana restaurant El Pub Calle 8. The sidewalk in front of his house wasn't in great shape, Rojas told Prieto-Portar. Could city crews come out and lay some new concrete? Sure, said the director, it so happens the sidewalks in your neighborhood are scheduled to be repaired. There's a city crew working just a few blocks east of where you live. When they finish, they'll move on to your street. Great, said Rojas. And while they're at it, could they pour a ramp for the new driveway I want to build? Sure, let's talk about it, answered Prieto-Portar.
The director of Public Works (137 employees, $14.1 million annual budget) doesn't cutomarily make house calls, but near dusk on Thursday, August 1, Prieto-Portar, along with Erno Rosa, the head of the department's operations division, paid a personal call on Elio Rojas at home. After the three men examined the sidewalk and the site of the new driveway, Rojas recalls, they sat in the Florida room of the house, sipped Coca-Colas, and discussed the repair and construction project. Public Works doesn't usually build driveway approaches for private residences, Prieto-Portar explained to Rojas, because even though it would be perfectly legal, the ramps from the curb to the sidewalk don't benefit the public. But as long as the crew was going to be working on the sidewalk, they'd make an exception and pour the ramp. The city would bill Rojas $50 for a permit to build on the public right-of-way, plus $150 for materials and labor. At this, Rojas says, he had an even better idea: as long as the city crew was fixing the sidewalk and building the ramp, why not go ahead and dig up the lawn, pour some more concrete, and actually build the driveway, finish the job?
That would be impossible, Rojas says he was told. "Erno Rosa said there is no way they can work on private property," Rojas recalls. "He said, `Even if you pay me, I can't do that.' So I said, `Fine. I'll just have to hire someone,' and that was the end of it."
But that wasn't the end of it at all. Months later, not only is Elio Rojas still getting by with only one driveway, but the Dade State Attorney's Office has expressed great interest in Prieto-Portar's role in solving the paving problem.
And while investigators scrutinize the Rojas saga, they're also probing another patch of concrete not very far away.
El Pub, where Elio Rojas and Luis Prieto-Portar first made each other's acquaintance, is a landmark on SW Eighth Street, for more than twenty years a gathering place for the city's Latin power elite. In late December 1990, a crew from Miami's Department of Public Works was hard at work there, too. Earlier that month Prieto-Portar and Jose Casanova, the city's planner for Little Havana, had approached El Pub's owner, Florentino Perez - who also happens to be chairman of the board of the private, nonprofit Latin Quarter Association, an organization that acts as the area's chamber of commerce - asking whether Perez would be interested in setting up a sidewalk cafe as an addition to his restaurant.
Applicants for sidewalk cafes are required to have liability insurance coverage of at least one million dollars, and must pay twenty dollars per year for each square foot of public sidewalk space they occupy. But the sidewalk alongside El Pub was too narrow to accommodate an outdoor cafe, so Perez says Prieto-Portar offered to have city crews - free of charge - pave over the muddy strip that ran along SW 16th Avenue between the existing sidewalk and the curb, thus creating a new public sidewalk and giving El Pub room to expand onto the old one.
"We had an agreement with the director of Public Works that they would do the construction in order for us to put in the first sidewalk cafe in Little Havana," says Perez, who considers himself a friend of Mayor Xavier Suarez and the four city commissioners. "We weren't supposed to pay anything to build this. Otherwise we wouldn't have started a cafe." Perez says he understood that the deal would also include a one-year waiver of the square-footage fee.
In late December a Public Works crew cleared grass and weeds from the site and poured the concrete, extending El Pub's sidewalk all the way to the curb. The cafe soon became a reality - fourteen tables, a bar, and potted ficus and bougainvilleas. But on January 16 the department sent Perez a bill for $2641.20 for the job, based on a payment schedule defined by the city code. "I had to call to remind them of our agreement," Perez remembers. On April 5, a Public Works construction engineer sent a memo to the accounting department, instructing that the bill be canceled. Perez didn't have to pay. In March Miami city commissioners had voted to waive the first year's square-footage charges for sidewalk cafes built in "target development areas" such as the Latin Quarter - with the aim of revitalizing those areas and encouraging growth.