Unreal Estate

According to Dade County, a squalid chunk of downtown property is really a park. Try telling that to the neighbors.

A mean little piece of land along the Miami River gained brief notoriety last month as the site of the so-called pizza murder. A thirteen-year-old boy, who had brought some pizzas to share with others who frequented the spot, shot and killed a homeless man for taking two slices instead of one. For a few days television and newspaper reports dwelled on the killer kid and the problems experienced by people living and working in the area -- heavy drug and prostitution traffic, all headquartered on that grassy plot on the river's south bank beneath the Metrorail tracks. But the tragedy, eclipsed in shock value by the murders of two foreign tourists only days earlier, faded quickly from public awareness.

Ironically, just the day before the shooting, Fran Bohnsack had been on the phone with the Metro-Dade Transit Agency leasing office; the county owns the 400-by-100-foot lot in question. As executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a trade association of shippers, Bohnsack had been trying for about a month to arrange for one of her members, Miami Ship Services, to lease the parcel. Miami Ship Services president Jim Brown had hit on the idea of storing empty cargo containers on the land, which lies just east of his shipping terminal property. The motivation was twofold: expand the company's operations, and clean up the blighted area.

"My guys are scared stiff," says Chris Colt, security chief for Miami Ship Services and a feisty former ship's captain who says he sometimes brings his Uzi to keep him company in the security station. He tells of a daily and nightly procession of rapes, knifings, and threats. "As a matter of fact, just before the shooting, the midnight [shift] guy quit. He couldn't take it. All the stuff going on. Druggies going down there doing their business. Prostitutes." Miami Police Department spokesman David Magnusson says police aren't called to that location often, but it is known as a perennial problem: "Lots of transients, lots of drugs."

An incongruous paved bike trail leads from SW Sixth Street to the place, a shaded spot lying east of the procession of massive concrete columns supporting the Metrorail tracks high above. A half-collapsed hut of planks and pallets, with a filthy yellowish blanket draped on top and an Indian blanket on the pallet floor, leans against a palm tree. Both the makeshift shack and a nearby lawn chair have the dirt-dull, camouflaged look of things that have been in the wild so long they are being consumed by the elements. Mounds of waterlogged debris, foam rubber, pieces of wood, plastic bottles, are sunk in the riverbank's black mud.

On that day before the shooting, Bohnsack learned from the county's leasing office that her proposal was unacceptable. "We didn't meet the criteria," she recalls. And what are those criteria? The primary concern, explains Judy Emerson, economic development specialist for the transit agency, was that the county property under Metrorail's tracks be kept clear for emergency and maintenance equipment. (Occasionally, Emerson says, some land under the tracks is leased or used for parking.) "But that's not a problem," Bohnsack contends, "because we could do it however they wanted and leave plenty of access." On the other side of the river, in any case, access under the Metrorail tracks appears to be blocked by a congregation of ramshackle lean-tos and moldy furniture.

"The other thing, though certainly of lesser importance, is the aesthetics of it," Emerson notes of the proposal to stack cargo containers in an area where containers are everywhere. "Basically the area under the guide way is considered a park." She hadn't been aware, she says, that the pizza murder happened in that park. "But from what my facilities people have told me, they said certainly there is some crime, but not a whole lot. It hasn't been vandalism or anything that would be very obvious to us."

Bohnsack hasn't given up quite yet. Earlier this month she put in another request with the county to reconsider her offer in light of the shooting. So far she hasn't gotten a response. Neither Bohnsack nor Emerson has any idea what the actual lease price of the parcel might be. Obviously the issues go beyond money. "Cargo containers are aesthetically unpleasing, as we all know; they smack of blue collar," Bohnsack asserts with only a touch of sarcasm. "So instead of having an unsightly storage area protected by 24-hour security, we have a county property where thugs dominate.

 
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