When a 71-year-old driver lost control of his Toyota Camry last weekend and plowed into a Miami sidewalk cafe, he not only injured 10, he also inflamed long-simmering frustrations from area residents who for years have said the gravelly stretch of Northeast Second Avenue outside Lemoni Café is an accident waiting to happen.
Just days before the crash, residents of Miami’s Upper East Side laid into Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and city staffers over years of delays to fix the roadway outside the cafe. In the months and years prior, the neighborhood association peppered city officials with emails, including some sent 18 months ago after a pedestrian leaving Lemoni was fatally struck by a car.
Miami administrators say they’re doing all they can to finish off the project, the last leg of a four-mile, $37 million streetscape improvement, and no one could have predicted a car would slam into what they say was an illegal sidewalk cafe. But activists say the city shoulders the blame for the severity of last week’s crash.
“It’s sad,” said Schiller Jerome, president of the neighborhood association. “This has been a constant theme.”
Tensions over that section of Second Avenue go back several years, and city documents show plans to improve the 15-block jog from 42nd Street to 57th Street date back to at least 2006. Today, while sections to the north and south have been improved, the busy roadway between Little Haiti and the Design District remains a patched-up, bumpy ride bereft of bicycle lanes, curbs and gutters, and other modern street amenities.
Local residents say the street has poor lighting, scant parking, and a sidewalk and swale that is flush with the roadway, making the pathway along the shops and restaurants precarious. “We love to go there, but we always sit inside,” Buena Vista resident Wendy Stephan said of Lemoni Cafe. “I had told my family that I did not feel safe sitting out there. You’re too close to the street.”
Miami’s plans to fix the stretch is part of a project that began at 20th Street and continued all the way to 84th. The city’s capital improvements program office began hiring contractors to work on sections to the north and south about four years ago.
But the area around Lemoni Cafe has remained untouched. Deputy City Manager Alice Bravo said the delay is due to funding and design issues and differences with Miami-Dade County, which controls Second Avenue. At one point slated to be completed by 2012, the city’s latest plans call for improvements to begin in January, after the tourist rush of Art Basel and the holidays.
“All that was in motion before this incident happened,” said Bravo.
But just 10 days prior to the crash, homeowners groups had gathered at Legion Park, urging Regalado and city administrators to fix the road. At one point, as officials explained that the latest Second Avenue project delays were due to problems with a designer, one man yelled out: “Five years! Five years! Five years! My poor car. Accidents. People getting hit by cars.”
On Oct. 4, Belony Alterma was heading south on Second Avenue, returning home from a Little Haiti laundromat with two passengers. “I was going to make a turn on 46th Street. Before I got to 46th Street I had the accident,” he said.
Alterma’s Camry veered off the road and onto the swale outside Lemoni, which is flush with the street. The car plowed through planters, tables and chairs, spilling customers over onto the sidewalk before slamming into a telephone pole. Bystanders rushed in to rescue the injured. Paramedics rushed 10 to area hospitals.
Police cited Alterma for careless driving and failing to wear his glasses while driving.
Though some blame the conditions of the road for the crash, Bravo says it shouldn’t ever have happened. Code Enforcement officers cited the cafe on March 29 for operating a sidewalk cafe without permits, according to the city.
“I’m under the impression that at one point it was removed and they put it back,” Bravo said of the sidewalk cafe.
Maria Pelati, co-owner of Lemoni, did not return messages left in person and over the phone at the cafe, and on a number listed as her cellphone. Bravo said the city is now looking into whether it has any course of action against the popular cafe.
“I know the community is frustrated with the appearance of the road but no one could have predicted something like this was going to happen,” said Bravo. “You had an outdoor cafe where there shouldn’t have been one. And you had a car crash.”
At a neighborhood association meeting on Saturday, residents said the tables at Lemoni and other area restaurants have been a constant presence for months, if not years — in plain sight of city staff and officials.
“We see people from police, code enforcement eat there. Everyone eats there. The idea that they haven’t seen it is a lie,” said Rich Raimann, who lives in the area. “It’s not fair to pin Lemoni for this.”
Jerome said that after the crash, the city assured him that the project would be fast-tracked. Officials are expected to take up the issue at 9 a.m. Oct. 23 at Miami City Hall.
“We want the project to be completed,” Stephan said. “It’s not that we have a wish list. This was a plan.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jordan Levin, freelance writer Matias Ocner and WLRN reporter Nadege Green contributed to this report.