The Battle of Biscayne

A place where hookers and drug dealers roam becomes Miami's Soho

But for Rios, a friendly fellow who looks half his age, life hasn't been all flowers and chocolates. Trouble has followed him almost since his arrival from Cuba in 1980. According to public records, Rios's first conviction in America was for burglary in 1983. He served five years.

In 1989 he pleaded no contest after police said he sold two crack rocks to an undercover police officer at his flower shop. He told the judge, David Young, he was supporting a bad drug habit. He was sentenced to three years and served one.

Rios — who acknowledged having a criminal record but would not talk about specifics — stayed clean for four years. But then, perhaps short of goods in preparation for his Valentine's Day extravaganza, Rios wound up in possession of about $6000 worth of stuffed animals, balloons, and romantic trinkets that had been stolen from Fantasy Flower Shop on Coral Way on February 4, 1993.

Motel Blu, which police say may be the next establishment 
to be summoned before the Nuisance Abatement Board
Motel Blu, which police say may be the next establishment to be summoned before the Nuisance Abatement Board

Rios told police he had been out of town the night of the burglary. "I bought them from someone called José," he admitted to authorities after they confiscated the stolen goods and a crowbar with green paint on it from his shop.

Rios told police that José, a man he had never seen before, had shown up with the goods.

But Fantasy Flower owner Gladys Piedra testified that she began calling other florists the day after the theft. "I heard that at such-and-such a place they sell very, very cheap and they sell stolen goods," she said, referring to Rios's shop. So she informed police that Rios might be the culprit. An officer took Piedra's son Obdulio to Rios's shop, where he immediately recognized the merchandise. Rios was arrested the same day.

Gladys Piedra later testified that she recognized Rios after his arrest: "That gentleman had been at my flower shop that week two times, asking for prices of different items. He promised to come back to buy something."

A jury convicted Rios in July 1993, and a judge sentenced him to three years of probation plus restitution to the Piedras.

Comments Rios: "I have no more problems. I don't want any trouble."

But Justin Hughes and Jaime Klein, thirtysomething entrepreneurs, complain that Rios is trouble. In January of 2005 the two men opened a sports bar called Kingdom in Rios's building. Since then they have feuded nonstop with the owner, who they say is trying to find a way to kick them out of the space they spent $100,000 renovating. Hughes, who co-owns a nutritional supplement company with his wife Tracy, and Klein, a former manager of the Polo Club, say they made their plans clear from the beginning. They contend that Rios promised them a liquor license and then didn't deliver. After an October police raid, Klein was jailed for not displaying the proper licensing.

Rios claims he never knew the pair planned to have liquor at their bar. Though he sued the tenants for eviction this past November, a judge threw out the case January 23. "We cleaned this place up and tried to keep the bad element away, but we got screwed anyway," Hughes says, adding that he has spent almost $10,000 on legal bills.

Both Hughes and Louis Bredeson, a Rios tenant who owns a barbershop in the building, say Rios has threatened them by referring to "dangerous friends."

"I have no friends," Rios responds.

Sinuhe Vega owns Uva 69, the successful breakfast-and-lunch café two blocks north of Rios's building. He says budding businesspeople should be wary when they venture into Miami's urban core, a lesson he learned when he opened Cane à Sucre one block west of Biscayne on 35th Street in 2002. "My first restaurant I opened was in a neighborhood that was sort of just beginning the gentrification process, and I got stuck with a landlord who saw me as fresh meat — someone to take advantage of," Vega says. "I learned a lot."

Leroy Griffith is short, stout, and polite. He favors clothing that is expensive but not ostentatious, and the diamond ring winking on his pinkie is more expressive than his face. He has been on the Boulevard longer than most. In 1970 he bought the pastel blue Art Deco strip club/nightclub/porn theater at 7778 Biscayne, which has been called the Pussycat Theater, Club Madonna II, and Black Gold, among other names. Though the club may have lost some of its notoriety to Club Madonna on South Beach (which he also owns), Griffith says he intends to hold on to the property, which was assessed at $1.1 million in 2005.

Ever diligent, the 73-year-old has arrived at his Biscayne office at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday. He climbs the stairs slowly, stopping halfway to look down at the darkened club's interior. "I have a new plan for this place," he says. "I'm going to open it as a singles' club — with maybe a couple of strippers on the poles."

Griffith's plans, however, conflict with those of the city. Though he recently paid $281,000 to stop Miami from foreclosing on the property, it is still the focus of a full-scale legal assault. Griffith says authorities want to turn his place into a parking lot, which would better align with city planners' vision for the neighborhood.

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