Loads of Dirty Laundry

Bounced checks, phony documents, multiple bankruptcies, countless lawsuits, burned business partners, and an army of avenging attorneys might discourage most entrepreneurs. But as far as Mohamed Ibrahim is concerned, it all just comes out in the wash.

Verifying information about such trusts is difficult in Florida, which has no disclosure requirements. Lewis Huss, an attorney for one of the contractors with a claim against Ibrahim, says he has requested from Alter's lawyer, Barbara Jimenez, copies of all documents relating to the trusts, but to date he's received no relevant papers. Huss's next move, he says, will be to ask Circuit Court Judge Norman Gerstein, presiding over the foreclosures and other lawsuits involving Ibrahim, to order Jimenez to produce the documents.

Jimenez, a sole practitioner who is handling Alter's foreclosure actions against Ibrahim, shares office space on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach with attorney Charles Neustein. Neustein represents Ibrahim in the foreclosure matters. (Jimenez and Neustein have denied that they share any professional affiliation.)

On top of having to deal with packs of attorneys, Mohamed Ibrahim still contends almost daily with the insistent complaints and demands of the lady next door. By late 1995 construction of the shopping center was more or less complete. Ibrahim had leased a shopful of washing machines, had obtained operating permits for all the stores, and everything was ready to go -- except for one extremely annoying hindrance: a Frenchwoman named Monique Taylor, who owns the apartment building immediately to the west of the shopping center.

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Taylor had been fighting Ibrahim ever since that morning in 1994 when she found a chainlink fence stretched across part of her property, blocking access to the Dumpster and her tenants' parking lot behind the apartment building. A contractor had put up the fence in preparation for construction of the shopping center.

Taylor, a long-time Upper Eastside activist and current member of the City of Miami Nuisance Abatement Board, complained to the local Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, to the city's public works and building and zoning departments, and to the city attorney's office. Inspectors and surveyors came out to look things over but were buttonholed by Ibrahim, who complained that Taylor, a somewhat grandmotherly woman given to wearing long flowered dresses and her gray hair in a bun, had trespassed on his property and threatened his construction workers with a semiautomatic pistol. (Taylor denies owning a gun, much less waving one at anyone on the site.)

The city took no action, but a few months later, according to Taylor, a garbage truck knocked down part of the fence, and soon afterward it was removed. This new development did nothing to ease the tension between the two neighbors.

"Then I got a call from one of my tenants saying, 'I don't know how to tell you this, but you're going to have a very big water bill,'" recalls Taylor. "Someone had gone over the wall [between the properties] and connected a hose to a spigot in back of my property, and they weren't even bothering to turn off the water at night. My tenants turned it off a few times. He was even watering his plants with my water. Sure enough, the bill was $1420. When I tried to get the NET officer to issue a citation, she refused. She said, 'Well, he said he was going to pay you back.' We ended up paying the whole thing."

Next there was a battle over how much water Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) would allot to Ibrahim -- that is, how many washing machines he could install and if he would have to pay any of the sizable environmental impact fees due on new-machine use. Depending on how much water use had been permitted before at the address, a certain flow would be grandfathered in and Ibrahim wouldn't have to pay impact fees (about $1500 per washing machine) on that amount.

Taylor discovered that DERM had granted Ibrahim a water-use permit based on a 76-unit apartment building having previously been on the property. But Taylor protested that it had been a motel, with fewer than 76 units. (Motels logically use less water than apartments, so Taylor and other laundromat owners concluded Ibrahim was getting an unjust discount, one reason he could offer free dryers.)

DERM official Vicente Arrebola said he could find nothing in property records indicating what kind of building had been there. Ibrahim gave Arrebola an affidavit signed by an inspector for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation verifying that a 76-unit apartment building had previously stood on the site. The inspector's boss in Tallahassee, however, wouldn't vouch for the veracity of the affidavit because he couldn't find records to back it up. Finally Arrebola discovered city fire department inspection records showing the building had been a 66-unit motel. He decreased the gallon usage allotment, and Ibrahim had to remove some of his washers.

But the real problem was that the city had approved the blueprint for the shopping center and had granted certificates of occupancy apparently without realizing it was impossible to drive into the parking lot in back of the laundromat -- a parking lot required by the city -- without crossing Taylor's land.

It's only a five-foot-wide stretch along the back alley running parallel to 79th Street, but Taylor says that five feet is necessary to allow passage of trucks onto her property. And without the parking lot in back of I Have a Dream, the strip center could not have met the city parking requirements necessary to obtain necessary permits.

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