All My Favorite Places, My City Had Been Pulled Down


When I was young and foolish, some of us downtown lawyers would actually go eat on the Miami River. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was true — you used to be able to get a fresh snapper sandwich at a reasonable price, from a real fish joint. Weird, right? (Believe me, Bijan’s does not count.) Sometimes we’d even head over there for cocktails after work, and watch the bales of weed and coke get offloaded pretty much right there on the docks. Ahh, good times.

But those days are gone. So gather round kiddies, as ole’ Uncle SFL spins yet another tale of screwed-up Miami bureaucracy (but don’t worry that half-billion dollar stadium will go swimmingly):

”It’s very depressing,” said Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian who chairs the city’s Planning Advisory Board and recalls accompanying her parents to buy fish at East Coast Fisheries in the 1940s.

“I hate to lose the building. The worst part of it is allowing an owner to let the building deteriorate like that. There has to be city responsibility. They didn’t make the owners do the things that would have saved it.”

EARLY DAYS

The building, 40 SW North River Dr., opened as Miller’s Fish Market in 1926, a time when the river was the center of a thriving commercial fisheries industry. At one point, 11 fish houses stood on the banks of the river, but none was as architecturally distinctive as East Coast Fisheries, which boasts the Mediterranean Revival style emblematic of Miami’s 1920s land boom, a city designation report says.

The Swartz family bought the building in 1933 for its wholesale seafood operations and renamed it East Coast Fisheries. It was converted into a restaurant in the 1970s.

Owner Peter Swartz, the founder’s grandson, unsuccessfully fought city efforts to protect the building, saying it was too deteriorated to restore. He then sold it to a developer.

The city historic board approved the new owners’ plan to renovate and expand the historic building for use as a restaurant and marketplace. But the property went into foreclosure and was acquired by Canyon Capital, a development and real estate firm.

In the meantime, the building sat vacant, windows gaping open, stripped of wiring and plumbing, a haven for drug users and the homeless, police say.

City officials say they tried for years to get the building’s owners to secure it properly. The city’s code enforcement director, Mariano Loret De Mola, said it has proven difficult: Trespassers have easily and repeatedly broken through chain-link fencing and pried open boards covering entrances and windows. The building’s rear could not be fenced off because the back wall goes directly into the river, he said.

”I believe it is almost impossible to secure this building,” Loret De Mola said in an interview.

At one point this year, fines against Canyon for allegedly failing to secure the building mounted to $150,000. But the city’s Code Enforcement Board reduced the fine to $2,500 after Canyon agreed to board it up again and repair the fencing. However, Loret De Mola cited the owners again in July, saying access was open again.

Infuriated preservationists and historic-board members called the code enforcement board action ”a joke” and ”outrageous” when Loret De Mora asked for demolition permission in July. Loret De Mola noted he has no control over the independent board.

”Who would fix anything up if that happens? I found the whole thing here shocking,” activist and tourism promoter George Neary told the preservation board. “It’s disgusting.”

The demolition request also flummoxed the property’s current owners. Their attorneys said Canyon Capital has secured the building as well as possible, and had not intended to demolish for one overriding reason: The sliver of property is so narrow and oddly shaped that zoning rules would not accommodate new development.

But historic zoning regulations do allow restoration and expansion of the existing building. Canyon Capital’s attorney, Santiago Echemendia, said the owners would be willing to reproduce the historic building as part of a larger redevelopment plan if the city would support necessary zoning variances.

”We are potentially adversely affected,” Echemendia said.

POWERLESS

The city’s preservation officer, Ellen Uguccioni, said there was not a lot her office could do to salvage the building. Unlike Miami Beach, where the city can order owners to rebuild in cases of demolition by neglect, Miami’s historic preservation office can only ask building officials to intervene when a historic structure is endangered. ”What happens is it can take so very long, by the time you get to the code enforcement board, it doesn’t help us. There is no quick fix,” Uguccioni said.

Building officials and the preservation office are now sharing computer files so Uguccioni can be alerted quickly if problems crop up in the future.

In the case of East Coast Fisheries, however, Uguccioni said she did not even know the city was fining the owners for violations, and a demolition permit was being pursued, until Loret De Mola went to the historic board.

Come on Santiago, don’t leave us hanging, dude. Work your magic and that next fish sandwich is on me.