Dora Isabel Cardenas had operated her tailor shop Isabel's Alterations in downtown Miami for 16 years — until she, along with other tenants at 48 E. Flagler St., received a late afternoon notice from management that the building was unsafe and at risk of collapse.
"They pretty much said the building was going to fall down so I grabbed as much as I could, but there was a lot I had to leave behind," Cardenas tells New Times, describing the September 9th, 2021, notice. "I was so scared. I could have had a heart attack."
A year later, Cardenas and three other tenants — Las Hermanas restaurant, Vive Cafe restaurant, and Golden Palace jewelry store — are suing two of billionaire real estate developer Moishe Mana's companies, alleging the eviction was under false pretense. (Interviews with the tenants were completed with the assistance of a translator.)
"They used the city's name to instill fear into us because of the events that happened months before in Surfside with the building collapse," Las Hermanas owner Oscar Bautista tells New Times. "They tried to use that as kind of a loophole for people that don't understand much and are not very savvy with their rights or the law."
The conflict began after the building was inspected in anticipation of renovations. Mana had purchased the 48 E. Flagler property and a neighboring property at 76 E. Flagler in 2015 for $35 million.
"We were going to renovate the building like a retrofit," Albert Berdellans, vice president of marketing and communications for Mana Common, tells New Times. "We weren't going to knock it down and build a new building. We were just going to renovate, which is exactly why we had everyone on month-to-month leases."
Mana is known for his properties throughout New York City and Miami. The Tel Aviv-born businessman is one of Miami's largest private landowners thanks to his portfolio in downtown's Flagler District, Wynwood, and Allapattah.
According to county records, the 113,000-square foot, seven-story 48 E. Flagler property was built between 1985 and 1986. The two-story structure next door at 76 E. Flagler, which has 47,000 square feet of space, dates back to 1928. Both properties are commercially zoned.
During an August 5, 2021, inspection, an engineering firm found that the building at 48 E. Flagler St. was "structurally unsafe for its use and current occupancy due to major concrete spalling in the basement and major water leaks from all roof areas." Because of the building's "poor structural condition," the inspector noted that building access should be prohibited.
Another inspection was then commissioned at the neighboring property at 76 E. Flagler St., where the engineer noticed significant structural concerns.
"On September 8, we received communication from that second engineer that his analysis indicated that the building was structurally unsafe and should not be inhabited at all," Berdellans says. "The next day we went and notified all the tenants that the structure is unsafe. It was obviously very disturbing to everyone."
Bautista says he tried to grab as much as he could from his Colombian restaurant before the properties were sealed by the end of the day. Before the unexpected evacuation, he had put $47,000 into renovations at the restaurant, which included installing a freezer room and new appliances. All of that was lost.
Without access to an elevator, Bautista tells New Times, he "had to take a refrigerator on [his] back down the stairs."
The police or code enforcement officials whom residents were expecting to assist in the mandatory evacuations were noticeably absent. The tenants say the notice came from management rather than from the city.
"It wasn't city people telling them to get out, which we know has happened to other buildings — that's not what happened," attorney David Winker tells New Times. "It would be one thing if code enforcement was there with their radios telling people to get out."
The city eventually posted a notice of violation on the building at 48 E. Flagler St. on September 14. The building was ruled in violation of city codes about unsafe structures and had to be repaired or demolished, but the notice did not mention any requirements for mandatory evacuations. Winker contends the city posts similar signs "all the time" to tell property owners to address problems with the building, such as not having 40-year recertification.
"This could have been done in a much more humane way or business-friendly way," Winker says. "Why did it have to be immediate?"
According to public records, the 76 E. Flagler St. address received a similar unsafe structure violation around 2019. The panel had decided that the property had to be repaired or demolished. The property received an unsafe structure violation again in April 2022.
Winker claims the tragedy in Surfside has emboldened landlords to evict tenants immediately under the notion the building is unsafe. In July 2021 after the Champlain Towers South Collapse, a Miami landlord posted notices all over his nearly 100-year-old Edgewater residential building, telling tenants the building was unsafe and that they must evacuate. Because no life-threatening issues were found at the building, the residents claim the landlord did this to get tenants out and turn a profit.
Berdellans says that is not the case with the Mana properties downtown.
"We understand there are situations where people use excuses of structural issues to try to do things they want to do anyway," Berdellans tells New Times. "But that's not what happened here."
The tenants also allege they were not permitted to retrieve any of the belongings they left behind in the building and that they did not receive their lease deposits back. Cardenas tells New Times she lost her fabrics, mannequins, and display cases.
Berdellans rebuffs those claims, telling New Times all rent was refunded and the tenants can still arrange to get their belongings still inside the building.
"To this day, if there's any property that any tenant claims that they have, they're welcome to arrange to have it retrieved," Berdellans says.
This past June, the city's unsafe structure panel ruled the building deficiencies could be repaired to bring 48 E. Flagler back into compliance. However, Mana Common disagrees with the notion that keeping the tenants in place would have been a feasible option.
"We would have had people in a potentially unsafe structure that was structurally unsound," Berdellans adds. "We weren't going to wait nine months with people's lives in the balance for that to play out."
Meanwhile, Berdellans says they intend to demolish the properties "to create a public amenity for the neighborhood." A permit application to demolish both buildings was filed last month.