The Long and Winding Road

Flush with valuable Lincoln Road real estate and saddled with major debts, the South Florida Art Center ponders its options, its future, and its purpose

Carlos Alves is talking on the phone in his studio, a high-ceiling storefront located in a building on Lincoln Road, just off Lenox Avenue. "You say you're waiting for your artwork?" he chuckles into the receiver, speaking loudly over the rumble of construction activity outside. "Well great, I'm waiting for my money."

A glass case and several wrought-iron patio tables with mosaic tops placed at the front of the room display funky ceramic flowers, colorful plaques in the shape of the sun, palm trees, and abstract faces, plus high-kitsch Christmas cräches adorned with flea-market spangles. Stacks of vintage household china that the artist will shatter into shards for future mosaic projects line the walls. Alves hangs up, grabs another phone A this one an unwieldy, rather antiquated portable model -- from his desk, steps outside, and grimaces. "How long is this going to go on?" he sighs, gesturing toward the menacing mounds of dirt on the sidewalk - dirt that, very likely, will blow under his door and into his studio by the end of the day. "It's been so bad for business."

Across the street, in front of the Colony Theater, a decorative fountain that Alves tiled with broken pottery in 1992 is surrounded by trenches. The fountain was Lincoln Road's first public art project sponsored by the South Florida Art Center. The nonprofit arts organization also owns the Sender Building, which houses the studios of Alves (at 1043 Lincoln Rd.) and other artists. The western end of Lincoln Road Mall has resembled a muddy war zone since July, when construction crews broke ground on the concrete esplanade to make way for the City of Miami Beach's $16 million capital improvement project, just in time for a particularly wet hurricane season.

On this sunny weekday morning in November, an idle bulldozer grazes near some of the mall's few surviving trees, while a group of hard-hat-wearing workers yell back and forth over the din of clanking sewage pipes. Nearby another work crew lays down the first squares of fresh cement for the redesigned pedestrian boulevard. Just down the block at the Lincoln Road Cafe -- which artists jokingly refer to as the Stinkin' Road Cafe -- Alves greets a waitress by name, orders breakfast in Spanish, and continues his griping. "It's been difficult to keep good faith at the art center with all of this crap going on," he says, waving his hand at the window. "We're on a roller-coaster ride with the city."

While renovations on the mall's outdoor spaces are certainly an inconvenience, Alves, who has had a studio on the Road for eight years and who sits on the South Florida Art Center's board of directors, is more concerned about other developments on Lincoln Road, developments that will directly affect his future. "I've been wanting to redo the studio for two and a half years, and I haven't been able to," he grumbles. "I just have to know if this building is going to stay as part of the art center."

At the beginning of 1994, the City of Miami Beach issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a ten-screen movie complex at the western end of the Road. In June of that same year, the Miami Beach City Commission approved a proposal (chosen by a citizens' selection committee) for a 63,000-square-foot cinema and retail center to be built on the site of the South Florida Art Center's Sender Building, which also contains SFAC's Ground Level and ClaySpace galleries, both at 1035 Lincoln Rd. City-owned land used for metered parking lots behind Lincoln Road was also earmarked for the entertainment/shopping complex and its accompanying parking facility. Jean-Jacques Murray, front man for the project's developer, Beach Cinema Group, later announced a Winn Dixie supermarket would be part of the proposal.

However, after a year and a half of negotiations, lapsed payments, false starts, and postponements of one sort or another, the Miami Beach City Commission voted down Beach Cinema's proposal this past November 21. The commissioners instead approved a bid for another supermarket in the area -- a Publix at West Avenue and Twentieth Street. At the well-attended commission meeting, Murray's counsel, Al Cardenas, suggested Beach Cinema be given two more weeks to create a new movie theater plan that would not include a supermarket. The commission swatted that idea aside, stating that the area's demographics had changed so much since the original RFP was issued that a new retail project might now be more appropriate for the mall. Commissioners decided to initiate a second RFP process for a Lincoln Road movie complex and to award a new contract to the winning bidder by January 10.

South Florida Art Center, which had already collected $145,000 in option payments from Murray's group, stood to benefit considerably more if the Beach Cinema deal had gone through: $2.25 million for the sale of the Sender Building (SFAC paid $650,000 for it in 1989), plus $25,000 to be donated by Beach Cinema to the arts group every year for five years.

As part of its option agreement with the art center, Beach Cinema still owes SFAC $15,000. But according to art center executive director Jane Gilbert, that money, due October 25, has never been paid, and the agreement between the two parties therefore has been voided. But a new movie theater proposal could still include the art center's building. In essence, SFAC finds itself right back where it started two years ago, before negotiations began with Murray's group.

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