Restaurant News & Reviews

They painted their restaurant like a Puerto Rican flag. Now the city says not so fast.

Owners of La Placita, an upcoming Puerto Rican restaurant in Miami’s MiMo district, paid $25,000 to have a famed Puerto Rican muralist paint the building like the Puerto Rican flag. The city says they did not clear it with a historic preservation board that oversees the area.
Owners of La Placita, an upcoming Puerto Rican restaurant in Miami’s MiMo district, paid $25,000 to have a famed Puerto Rican muralist paint the building like the Puerto Rican flag. The city says they did not clear it with a historic preservation board that oversees the area.

They wanted to plant Puerto Rico’s flag in Miami.

The problem is they didn’t ask for the right permission before planting it, the city of Miami says.

The celebrity owners of a new Puerto Rican restaurant, La Placita, failed to apply to the historic preservation board that oversees the Miami Modern district before commissioning a famed Puerto Rican muralist to paint their three-story building to look like the Puerto Rican flag.

Now, a city spokesperson said, they may have to paint over the massive new mural.

Julián Gil, the Latin American television star who was raised in Puerto Rico, teamed with one of Miami’s most decorated chefs, the Puerto Rican-born José Mendín, on the new restaurant. It was slated to open Friday at 6789 Biscayne Blvd., the site of the former Balans restaurant.

They commissioned Puerto Rican-born artist Hector Collazo Hernández, who started painting the red, white and blue flag Thursday morning on the outside of the building with a legion of painters. Even Miami Mayor Francis Suarez stopped by at midday to oversee the progress.

But MiMo neighbors saw the mural go up and quickly raised their concerns about whether La Placita’s owners had followed the right steps before making such a change in a neighborhood labeled historic.

The MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District is the only commercial district in Miami to receive a historic designation. The district’s architectural style is a unique mix of Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco that gave rise to the MiMo look. Many of the once-rundown motels have been renovated into boutique hotels under the historic board’s guidelines, which include a palette of paint colors.

“I’m a huge fan of murals, and street art is awesome. But there’s a place for that and this is not a place for that,” said MiMo homeowner Alisa Cepeda, president of the volunteer MiMo Biscayne Association, a group of neighborhood home and business owners who attend historic board meetings and make recommendations to preserve MiMo’s historic character.

La Placita’s owners, however, contend the building shouldn’t be held to the historic district’s standards. It was built in 2009 and not in the MiMo style, La Placita’s CEO Joey Cancel said. Plus, he said the restaurant’s owners were granted a special-event permit to paint the mural and were not told it violated any other ordinances.

“Applicant is authorized to conduct artistic painting of mural at the above listed location,” the permit signed by the Miami Police reads.

La Placita “made an initial assessment to learn if the building was categorized as historical and confirmed it was not listed as such, being a 2009 construction,” Cancel wrote in an email to the Miami Herald. “After a month, no such thing ... was brought through the process as a requirement to obtain a painting permit.”

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The owners needed to first present their idea to the city planning department and the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board would review it, planning officials said Friday. They confirmed they did not receive an application for a Special Certificate of Appropriateness and have turned the matter over to code compliance.

“They are not in compliance,” said Vickie Toranazo, a historic preservation planner for the city of Miami. “It’s now a code compliance issue.”

La Placita has 30 days to address the mural, according to city spokesperson Stephanie Severino. Most likely, she said, they will be asked to paint over the flag and restore the building to its original color.

La Placita’s owners would have to present their idea to the planning department first, and their case could not be heard until March at the earliest, Severino said. They can take their case to the City Commission if the historic board rejects their mural, which Cancel said cost more than $25,000.

“We don’t want to break the law because we’re not above the law,” Cancel said later. “What I hope is that there can be a middle ground, something that works for everyone,” Cancel said.

The mural also has cultural significance.

Hernández’s painting, “Plantando Bandera (Staking Your Flag)” grew out of his project, “78 Pueblos y Una Bandera,” where he painted a large outdoor mural in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities in 2018. The flags became a symbol of unity and resilience after the destruction from Hurricane Maria.

“We want to represent Puerto Rico. Just as we’ve done on the island, that’s what we want to do here in Miami,” Hernández said in a video posted on Gil’s Facebook page Wednesday. “This project is, ‘Plantando Bandera,’ because we wanted to stake the flag of Puerto Rico in the ground here and leave our fingerprints like we’ve done on the island.”

Gil, a household name in Latin America who has more than 2.4 million Instagram followers, gave Mendín his first cooking job at his restaurant on the island. He wanted Miami to get the first “Plantando Bandera” mural. He hoped to expand it to other cities, he said in his video.

“I wanted the first flag outside Puerto Rico to be in Miami,” Gil said.

It helped mark one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year, where Mendín, five times nominated for a James Beard award, would cook the cuisine of his upbringing.

Whether the flag can stay may be up to the residents who will see it every day.

“We just want to preserve the historical identity of the neighborhood,” Cepeda, of the community group, said. “I’m sure we can come up with some type of compromise where everyone is happy. We just want to preserve the historical identity of the neighborhood.”

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”
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