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.

Why have so many murals been looked over for so long?

One possible explanation is cross-pollination between advertisers and city officials. Irain Gonzalez, who until July was chief of operations for code enforcement, recently took a job with Fuel Outdoor, a company that is responsible for some of the renegade ads cited by Sarnoff. Reached in Dallas, where he has moved, Gonzalez denies any conflict of interest. "I understand the city charter and codes. I understand what my limits are, and I was hired to start this venture in Dallas, Texas. I'm not dealing with the city government of Miami." His new job, he explains, is to "find permitted assets throughout the city — large format ... what you would call murals."

"It's municipal prostitution at its worst," says Dusty Melton, a lobbyist who helped craft the county's 1985 billboard ban. "Mural companies admit they're breaking the law, and the city says, 'Okay, we'll take your money and leave you alone.' ... The city has become business partners with the criminal element of the mural industry."

City commissioners have been dithering for two years on a law to regulate this mess. An ordinance exceedingly friendly to the industry was drafted but never acted upon.

This past July 26, Sarnoff presented a new proposal. It would limit the number of murals to 15, to be decided by a lottery. Owners cited by code enforcement in the past five years would be unable to immediately apply. "I don't see why an illegal mural company should have the same advantages as a company that's played by the rules," Sarnoff says.

It didn't go over very well. Commissioner Angel Gonzalez moved to defer the item, declaring his agenda had been "hijacked" and reminding all in attendance that "I was appointed chair of this commission, and while I'm chair of this commission, I'm going to run the agenda.... For people that like it or not, I'm running this commissioner [sic]."

Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones jumped in to say she was "really trying to digest this whole thing," and asked for "a little bit more time before I make a decision on what I'm going to do." A vote on the measure was deferred, and probably won't come up again until October.

Several days after that meeting, Spence Jones talked to Assistant City Attorney Kimberly Smith about proposing her own mural law. A draft that resulted from that conversation was much more lax than Sarnoff's. It would allow 45 murals instead of 15, and provide for looser rules in parts of Park West, near the Miami Arena, called the Entertainment District. Owners of at least two buildings with large murals in that area have ties to Spence Jones. Big Time Productions, which has hosted meetings of the Community Redevelopment Agency (chaired by Spence Jones) owns one of them. Royal Palm Entertainment, which contributed generously to her campaign, owns another.

But Spence Jones aide Alexander Koteles says his boss will not be presenting the proposal after all. He expects commissioners to reach a compromise.

For his part, Sarnoff says he is willing to consider easing restrictions on the Entertainment District: "I may have some flexibility there, but what I don't want to have happen is I don't want the performing arts center surrounded by murals; we spent half a billion dollars on a building — I don't see why we need to surround it with wall art." If he had his way, Sarnoff says, he'd ban murals altogether. But politics is politics.

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