Sign of Sleaze

While commissioners dither, advertisers get away with (visual) murder

The area around downtown Miami has been infiltrated by renegade outdoor advertising. Murals on buildings appear quickly and quietly; a crumbling façade on an Overtown corner becomes a two-story-tall ad spot for Skyy Vodka; three floors of an office building south of Flagler transform into a giant space to promote ribs; an abandoned building on North Miami Avenue is suddenly a massive billboard for Budweiser.

Most of the murals are in Commissioner Marc Sarnoff's district. All of them, he says, are illegal — and he recently began a crusade to regulate them. "I think [they're] visible pollution," he says, insisting he's fighting for "freedom ... from advertisement."

What's in a sign? The answer, of course, is money. Major companies pay major moolah to have their logos draped over buildings with prominent views. (Buildings facing expressways are especially valuable.) Sarnoff estimates the largest murals can earn from $20,000 to $40,000 per month or more — in some cases, that's enough to pay for the buildings where they're posted several times over.

Documents show that haphazard code enforcement, slow-moving lawmakers, and possible conflicts of interest at city hall have made hanging murals one of the fastest ways to earn a buck in town.

City law makes some allowances. A club or condo can advertise its own wares, for instance. And places like the Miami Herald can get permits for monstrous signs. But for years city inspectors have been fighting a losing battle against the illegal ads, admits code enforcement director Mariano de Mola. In 2003 he cracked down. "Lemme tell you, we combed the whole city," he says. He and his men identified 48 illegal murals around town. They cited all the owners, and most removed the offending work.

According to De Mola, 13 building owners appealed their case to the city's code enforcement board. Four were found to be legal after all, and nine were deemed in violation. But this is where things get really weird. Instead of removing the offending material, those nine property owners cut a deal: They would preserve the ads and simply have the ad agencies responsible for the murals pay the maximum daily fine of $250. (That's $91,250 per year.)

In the years since De Mola's 2003 mural roundup, however, enforcement has been spotty at best. Last month Sarnoff showed more than two dozen slides to city commissioners that he said included renegade murals.

And at least one of the nine companies that signed on to this agreement apparently simply stopped paying: Eastern Union Corporation, a Miami company that lists attorney Edward J. McCormick as its registered agent. The firm owns 111 SW Third St., a small office and residential building with big walls facing I-95 and the Miami River. Last week the structure had two massive murals hanging on its east and west sides — one a sultry four-story ad for Aldo Shoes, the other featuring a platter of ribs from the GameWorks Arena Sports Bar and Grill. They covered approximately half the surface of the walls they occupy.

A well-dressed, middle-age woman who works on an upper-level floor said her office windows were covered by a mural. "It's like a haze outside the window," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "It's like a dark haze."

Yet the $250-per-day payments ceased in January 2007, city records show and De Mola confirms. The city stopped fining the building after it received a letter — supplied to New Times by De Mola — from McCormick stating the murals had been removed. "Since we no longer have wall murals," McCormick wrote, "we will not be paying to the City of Miami the $250 per day."

The code enforcement officer says inspectors confirmed the murals had been taken down. He's not sure exactly when they went back up, but the case was reopened July 25, shortly after Sarnoff submitted a list of apparent violators. "Admittedly it's like a game," says De Mola. "We cite them, they take it down, they put it up again."

Reached by telephone, McCormick would only say, "No, I'm not interested, bye," before hanging up. (By Monday, the GameWorks mural had been removed.)

Here are a few other locations where building owners have posted murals with little city scrutiny:

• 1236 N. Miami Ave., which is surrounded by a chainlink fence and barbed wire, boasts one large ad for Chevrolet, and, facing I-95, an enormous spot for Pom Tea. It's owned by Fast Park II, which is represented by a lawyer in Weston. It was recently cited by the city.

• 1334 N. Miami Ave. is a dilapidated, historic building that hosts a two-sided wraparound mural for a photography show, with north and east exposure. On the other side is a Budweiser ad as tall as the building itself. Though the place's owner, Eugene Rodriguez, was cited, code enforcement board chairman Charles McEwan agreed fines wouldn't be levied, at least until a mural law is passed.

• 50 Biscayne Blvd. until recently had a 15-story-high advertisement for Sunglass Hut that was so big you could see it from Miami Beach. According to De Mola, the property was cited in April and was being charged $150 per day. Why not $250? De Mola says that's up to a special master, not his department.

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