Pioneering Downtown Artist Losing His Gallery to Make Way for Highway Overpass

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In a fight between a man and the interstate highway system, one would expect the man to always lose. Artist George Sánchez-Calderón, who's been engaged in such a conflict all year, always figured he'd lose too. "But it's a fair argument to say, like, you should or could have this guy stay here," he said in mid-June.

The "you" in this case are the folks at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) preparing the way for a project titled "I-395 Reconstruction," which would widen and further elevate the expressway, move exit and entrance ramps, and erect an "aesthetically pleasing bridge" high above Biscayne Boulevard sometime in the 2020s. All for less than $800 million.

The "here" is the little warehouse Sánchez-Calderón owns right next to I-395 at 75 NW 12th St. As a practitioner of a strain of fine art known as relational aesthetics, he's been engaged in the Park West/Overtown community for 13 years.

And he wanted to stay engaged: "My God, it's going to be one of the best downtowns in the world! I mean, let's be real! They're going to put in a train station. They're putting in all these new buildings. It's one of the warmest climates to live in." In fact, he wanted FDOT to incorporate his warehouse into the new highway design, even if that meant his place would end up under I-395.

But FDOT's right-of-way agents simply said no way. During a round of mediation early this year, the agency offered to buy him a warehouse valued at $650,000 at NW Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street near Jackson Memorial Hospital. "They said it had white walls so it looked like an art gallery. They actually thought I was going to say, 'Wow, thanks!'" Sánchez-Calderón explains.

Perhaps they didn't understand that the artist's locus of aesthetic instigation had to be in a spot of the artist's choosing. That is, exactly where it is.

To fully understand his argument, one must go back to at least February 2001, when Sánchez-Calderón paid $105,000 for the one-story, 2,600-square-foot warehouse on the south side of I-395. He named it the Bakery, in honor of his father, who had owned and operated a bakery in South Beach from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The artist, who received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, remodeled the place into a cavernous artist studio and living space with high ceilings, a kitchen, three bathrooms, a bedroom, and a large den with an expansive wall bookcase requiring a ladder.

The warehouse was situated on a 4,200-square-foot triangular lot, a fragment of a city block that freeway designers had flattened to build the I-395 overpass in the 1960s. The lot sticks out from under the expressway, vaguely like the Wicked Witch of the West's legs poking out from under Dorothy's house after it fell on her in the tornado.

A triangular slab of concrete served as both patio and parking spot for his pickup truck. On the other side of the patio fence was a vast, gloomy asphalt wasteland with seemingly endless rows of gigantic concrete pillars holding up I-395. But best of all was the view to the east, so rare that he would one day sell a huge black-and-white photographic print of it to the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. The work depicts a dramatic line formed by I-395 dividing the bright sky from the dark expressway underbelly, with two high-rises under construction on the horizon.

In 2001 he secured permits from FDOT to construct a replica of the Villa Savoye, a famous modernist house that Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier designed and built from 1929 to 1931. Sánchez-Calderón titled his installation La Bendición (The Blessing). According to the text he wrote for his website, "The sculpture calls into question the goals of modernism by juxtaposing... the quintessential modern home with the harsh realities of the blight-ridden area under interstate I-395... infamous for prostitution and the panhandling of crack cocaine and heroin." Because Art Basel Miami Beach was cancelled in 2001 owing to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he repeated the feat in 2003.

René Morales, a curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami, thinks La Bendición is one of Miami's most important works. "If one were to try to write out an art history of recent artistic production here in Miami," Morales says while sitting on the new museum's bayside deck about a half-mile east of the Bakery, "the Le Corbusier house underneath the expressway would be a real landmark."

Morales calls Sánchez-Calderón "a pillar of the artistic community here" and as further evidence mentions Miami Midtown Midway, an installation Sánchez-Calderón executed during Art Basel 2003 in the old Florida East Coast Railway yard, the future site of the Shops at Midtown Miami. It featured a real Ferris wheel, stage performances, and carnival-style banners portraying wealthy local art collectors.

His art sometimes touched his often-destitute neighbors. In 2006 Sánchez-Calderón employed a homeless Overtown resident named Dana as a model for After Durer, a cast plaster statue of a man seated on a stump with a large sword stuck in his back. ("After I lose my property, I will cast it in bronze," Sánchez-Calderón pledged.) In 2007 he built Monument/Plinth, a wooden platform next to the Bakery where sub-I-395 inhabitants struck poses.

"What people like me do are aesthetic responses to the relationships and the associations of the matrix that makes up a community," Sánchez-Calderón explains. During Art Basel 2012, for an installation titled Pax Americana, he placed a replica of a 1947 suburban tract home from Levittown, New York, on Collins Avenue in Bal Harbour near the site of the long-demolished Americana Hotel. In March last year, he burned down the house in Bicentennial Park to "remind everyone" of a paradigm shift in the American dream from suburban sprawl to vertical mansions in the urban core. He sees a painful irony in that FDOT is expanding I-395 in part "to get people back into urban cores -- and the artist who lives in the urban core is getting removed."

Interstate 395 was also integral to Sánchez-Calderón's plans with billboard vendors to build an amphitheater with mural signs atop his warehouse and use half the ad revenue for his living expenses and local art projects. The vision fell through after the vendors learned of the I-395 reconstruction project. But because he could have pursued a variety of vertical possibilities at 75 NW 12th St., including building seven additional stories, Sánchez-Calderón argued that FDOT should compensate him for his air rights. All told, he contended the loss of his property to be worth $3.3 million.

But he didn't stop there. He also wanted to be a paid consultant on the project. "I want the government to design a highway that's best for the neighborhood. I think that would involve having commercial space underneath it -- a skate park underneath it, public space," he says. "And keeping people like me and Purvis Young types in the area."

FDOT's designers, however, aren't listening to Sánchez-Calderón. The eastbound exit ramp that drivers now descend to NE Second Avenue is to be moved west, precisely adjacent to the lot where the Bakery stands. A widened, three-lane overpass will be constructed right above the lot, which means the warehouse must go. "Due to safety and maintenance concerns, the Department does not generally allow private buildings to coexist under its limited access facility bridge structures," emailed Joe Gomez, an engineer at T.Y. Lin International, which along with FDOT is designing the new I-395. Gomez added that FDOT "is committed to opening up the area underneath I-395, including providing areas for landscaping."

If displaced parcel owners such as Sánchez-Calderón wanted to rebuild in the I-395 right of way, they could apply for a permit from FDOT, which would then consider "all factors" and "make a determination whether to permit such use," he wrote.

Early this year, Sánchez-Calderón painted the words "NOT FOR SALE," as tall as his metal front door, on the 12th Street side of his building. In May he placed the same message, in even larger letters, on the west façade. They became visible from I-395 after FDOT-hired bulldozers and backhoes demolished the building next door, one of whose walls bore a cartoonish mural Sánchez-Calderón painted several years ago of the legs of the Wicked Witch of the West sticking out from under a house.

"I sit every night at home alone tripping looking at downtown. I'm like, 'I nailed it,'" he said recently, raving about the four glowing high-rises he can see off in the distance above Biscayne Boulevard. "My view is so unique because I'm at the end of the corner of a triangular little block. The highway blocks anything from being built in front of it. Nothing can be built within a half-mile in front of me."

Nothing except a widened freeway overpass.

At a mediation session last week, Sánchez-Calderón signed a settlement agreement with FDOT rather than forge ahead into a court battle he was bound to lose. "I feel sick," he said afterward, even though FDOT agreed to pay him $2 million. Accepting the deal also made him feel like "a whore." "But a modestly expensive one," he added.

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