By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"I'm a good businessman, been doing this a long time in a tough area," Griffith grumbles. "Don't know why they want to give me all this trouble."
The city has chosen a battle-hardened opponent in Griffith, who began his career as a teenager working a concessions stand at a Saint Louis burlesque theater. Over time, he has made a living owning and operating burlesque shows and strip clubs. He has also purchased failing first-run movie theaters and converted them into porn movie houses. Griffith has been operating clubs, burlesque and otherwise, in South Florida since 1961. When he bought the Biscayne property for $165,000, it was a movie theater showing Patton.
He estimates he has owned and managed more than 40 such businesses over more than five decades from Portland to New York. He declines to reveal personal financial details, but public records show he lives in a $650,000 home in exclusive Bay Point and drives a new black Mercedes sedan. He also donates thousands of dollars to political campaigns and police and firefighters' benevolent associations.
He shakes his head as he describes the source of his current troubles with the city. "Here's the whole thing," he says, emphasizing gruff proclamations by tapping his small, well-manicured hand on his desk. "Am I or am I not guilty of running a parking lot?"
Miami first imposed a twenty percent parking surcharge on paid parking lots in 1999 (the surcharge was later amended to fifteen percent). Griffith says he had been collecting at his lot "for years" by the time the surcharge went into effect.
At issue is exactly what he was collecting for. Griffith says those who used his lots paid ten dollars but that the ticket was for his adult theater, not for a parking space. In 2001 the city's code enforcement department began citing Griffith for not paying the surcharge, saying his lot was used primarily by people who paid the seven dollars for a space so they could walk to the Immigration and Naturalization Service building a block away. The proof was a videotape of people doing just that. Griffith refused to pay, and the city pursued him through code enforcement hearings and eventually into circuit court, where a judge ordered him to pay up in December 2005.
Griffith sums up his legal defense in classically concise fashion: "People pay for a room at the motel; they park their car; nobody makes them go into the room. People buy a ticket for the theater; I don't follow them in." He contends that the city wants his property for something other than an adult theater. He points to e-mails that emerged during the court case.
On April 13 Miami's chief financial officer, Linda Haskins, wrote to Miami Parking Authority Deputy Director Frederick Bredemeyer: "If we succeed in the foreclosure, we would probably look at putting a fire station there." Mark Trowbridge, another MPA deputy director, wrote to Bredemeyer: "Fire station? Add a parking deck!!!"
Tim Dodson, who handles PR for the MPA, e-mailed New Times after a reporter contacted Bredemeyer about the case. "MPA has never been involved in any discussion regarding possible future uses of the property in question, beyond that brief e-mail exchange you read," he wrote.
Griffith paid the penalty and fines to stave off foreclosure on January 12, but he is suing to get his money back. Though the city's attorney, Joe Serota, insists it is a purely legal matter, Griffith says the city simply wants him out. "They got all this development coming in," he says from behind his desk at the club. "Suddenly a guy like me doesn't belong here."
Real estate analyst Michael Cannon puts the neighborhood's problem succinctly: "In the Upper Eastside, you have tons of nice neighborhoods lining the Boulevard, a built-in client base for stores and restaurants. You just have to convince them that it is safe enough to come out."
Crime was down sharply in the Upper Eastside in 2005. According to police statistics, burglaries in the area have dropped by twenty percent in the past five years, robberies by almost thirty percent. Assault is down by about twenty percent.
Whether or not crime remains a constant in the Upper Eastside, other changes are on the way. The northwest corner of 79th Street and Biscayne, now a low-end shopping center, is ground zero for the largest planned development in Miami since the Midtown project got underway three miles to the south. This past December, developers the Easton Group and the Related Group announced plans to team up for a $430-million retail/residential megaplex including a 52-story condo tower including 2470 residential units and 200,000 square feet of retail space.
The city is paying for aesthetic improvements as well. A groundbreaking ceremony January 9 marked the starting point for $13.2 million in public works projects, covering a 2.5-mile segment between NE 37th and 67th streets. The work will include drainage, traffic signal improvements, wider sidewalks, decorative streetlights, and median landscaping. It's scheduled for completion in a year.
But Felicity, who still works the Boulevard every day, remains skeptical. She says she doesn't know where she'll peddle her wares if the neighborhood gets too clean for her kind. Then again, she doesn't think that will ever happen. "Some girls done worked their whole lives, lived anddied on Biscayne, and that's not going anywhere. We may move up the block, but we're not going away as long as there are men in this city."