By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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But nearly two years after Noriega backed off at Teele's request there was still no progress toward lots under I-395 or toward a garage on the Mirmelli property. Last fall Mirmelli happened to contribute $500 to Teele's re-election campaign. Then at a CRA meeting in early June an item proposing a $3 million purchase of 1001 North Miami Ave. appeared on the agenda.
Teele flatly denies he was influenced by a simple check. "I understand that Mirmelli contributed to my campaign. But I was unaware of it," Teele says. "He didn't hold a fundraiser for me." Mirmelli subsequently backed away from the deal. Last month Teele agreed on a plan under which the CRA would build the lots under I-395 and the Miami Parking Authority would operate them.
Even so Noriega says if Teele had not intervened, parking under I-395 would now exist, a garage at 1001 North Miami Ave. might be completed, and a few more pioneers might have opened up bars and restaurants in the CRA zone. "This should have happened two years ago," Noriega chides. "It could have happened."
That Teele has been under fire from Overtown residents and activists is not breaking news. But earlier this year the commissioner felt pressure from a relatively new source -- a contingent of real estate investors eager to transform parts of the CRA zone into an urban playground, a subtropical Chelsea. In addition to several Miami area natives, the group includes three Israelis, a Brazilian, and an Englishman. Most of their properties are located west of Biscayne Boulevard between the I-395 overpass and NW Fourteenth Street. It would be a destination for the downtown business crowd, club-hoppers tired of South Beach and Coconut Grove, and future concert-goers to the Performing Arts Center.
"We're building a neighborhood," says 44-year-old Gil Terem, a Tel Aviv native who moved from New York City to Miami three years ago. Terem specializes in reviving old abandoned buildings and speaks romantically of seeing them fill up with "light and life" after he cracks them open for the first time in 30 years or more. "They're like works of art," he says of his renovations. Terem is planning to turn one building on NE Fourteenth Street into a 24-hour sandwich bar. "The type of business where you can stop there any time day or night and grab a nice sandwich, salad, fruit, coffee. That's going to serve all the area. It's going to have a very stylish and tasteful design," assures Terem, who owns a similar establishment in the Tribeca section of Manhattan.
Glimmers of a trendy transformation began more than three years ago. The pioneer was Big Time Productions owner Eugene Rodriguez, who converted an old ice factory in Overtown into a sound stage and office complex known as the Ice Palace. But the nearby 24-hour Art and Entertainment District remains largely a sea of blight. Club Space, the Goldrush strip joint, and another club called Exile, all south of I-395, are the only other arrivals.
Terem and his cohorts have been frustrated in their efforts to gain access to the CRA agenda. They want the CRA to back extending the Art and Entertainment District north to Fourteenth Street and south to Seventh Street. Not only would that allow their dream cafés and lounges to operate round the clock, but it would also free them from tens of thousands of dollars in water and sewer impact fees per building. Owners of Club Space, Goldrush, and Exile have enjoyed that treatment. Adding to their angst, the new pioneers are paying property taxes ranging from $15,000 to $200,000 a year for their abandoned buildings, money that funds the CRA.
So in April five of them outlined their concerns in a letter to Commissioner Winton. The current Art and Entertainment District boundaries "randomly exclude some of the most attractive areas for nightclubs and restaurants," they complained. They repeated their cry for the creation of parking lots under I-395. And greater police presence, which is also part of the CRA mission. "Potential residents [and patrons]," they wrote, "are scared away by the armies of drug dealers, prostitutes, and criminals, particularly at night around the [old] bus station and the I-395 overpass." They also requested stepped-up enforcement against owners of derelict or abandoned properties with broken windows, peeling paint, and unmowed lots. "Every time we show a prospective tenant that area it looks so shitty," one of the five, Brad Knoefler, grumbles.
"I called Commissioner Teele's [CRA office] about ten times," Knoefler says. "After about two weeks I gave up."
The tardy 2000 audit served, if nothing else, to empower Winton and Sanchez to start regularly questioning expenditures proposed by the CRA chairman and the agency's staff. But by the end of the July 9 CRA board meeting, Teele appeared to be making headway out of his crisis. He was willing to entertain Commissioner Angel Gonzalez's conspiratorial suggestion that, perhaps, it was a conflict of interest for the Miami Commission to double as the CRA board. Maybe it should include people from the private sector, Gonzalez thought.
"I'm open to all of these things," Teele declared. "The only thing I'm not open to is reversing the commitment to try to restore Overtown and to a lesser extent but to a very real extent Park West, to some sense of financial prosperity."