A massive, three-story mural of the Puerto Rican flag, created to highlight a new Miami restaurant, remains painted in controversy.
The owners of La Placita restaurant, a joint passion project between Spanish-language television celebrity Julián Gil and decorated Puerto Rican-born chef José Mendín, commissioned a famed Puerto Rican muralist to create the mural in December. However, the owners failed to apply for a special permit from the board that oversees the historic MiMo District, where the building sits.
Now that body, the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, has voted 5-3 against granting a permit-after-the-fact that would allow the mural to stay. The board voted at nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday after a contentious, 7-hour public meeting to discuss the latest plan for the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
But the Puerto Rican flag mural won’t have to be painted over just yet.
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The owners have 15 days to file an appeal directly to the City of Miami Commission. The earliest they could be heard is the April 11 commissioners meeting.
La Placita’s owners feel they have momentum: The board’s chairman, vice-chair and one other member voted to allow the mural.
Although one of them, vice-chair Lynn Lewis, said she voted yes on the condition that the mural be repainted in colors that are approved for MiMo’s historic district. “We try to bend as much as we can,” Lewis said. “We try to stress to people that being in a historic district is an economic advantage.”
“This is the time reasonable people should arrive at a solution that really works,” La Placita’s CEO, Joey Cancel, said. “This is the moment the city has to step up.”
La Placita went into the project with good intentions, Cancel said.
Gil, the Latin American television star who was raised in Puerto Rico, commissioned Puerto Rican-born artist Hector Collazo Hernández to create the piece, “Plantando Bandera (Staking Your Flag).” The owners say it cost them $25,000.
It was to be the first of several Puerto Rican flag murals on the mainland, an echo from Hernández’s “78 Pueblos y Una Bandera,” where he painted a large outdoor mural in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities in 2018. The flags served as a symbol of unity and resilience on the hurricane-ravaged island.
Gil has asked his legion followers, more than 2.4 million on Instagram alone, to come out in support of the flag mural.
“The flag won’t go. I will fight against wind and sea to defend this work and the Puerto Rican culture,” he wrote in an email to his supporters. “Our flag will be respected. We will defend it. We have the support of the Puerto Rican diaspora and we will make ourselves heard.”
La Placita’s owners say the permitting process was so convoluted that they were told they only needed a special-event permit from the police department, which they were granted.
In fact, they needed to submit their project to the historical board first. Murals are explicitly banned in the MiMo district, according to city ordinances.
“The painting of murals does adversely affect the historic, architectural, or aesthetic character” of the building and the MiMo district, a city preservation officer wrote in recommending the board deny the Special Certificate of Appropriateness after the fact.
“We [Puerto Ricans] are part of the history of the United States. So if the historic preservation board wants to preserve history, we are part of it,” Cancel said.
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.
Vocal residents, including members of the MiMo Biscayne Association, a group of home- and business owners, came out against the mural.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Cancel pointed to seven empty buildings surrounding his instead. He said the mural has drawn crowds to MiMo and his restaurant, which he said contributed $30,000 in sales tax in its first month of business.
“It has become a tourist attraction. People want to come here, take pictures, take selfies,” Cancel said. “In the MiMo District, what they are preserving are empty buildings.”