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Lonely tenant stays, despite tough times at empty Miami mall

As Gaby Oleksnianski walks past the thousands of red velvet boxes, clear plastic bags and white necklace stands in his 8,000-square-foot store, he can hear the hollow echoes of his own footsteps.

Jewelry Display, a household name in the downtown Miami jewelry district, has been in the same location for 27 years, but these days, Oleksnianski spends his time reminiscing with old clients on the street in front of MetroMall, where he is the only tenant.

Oleksnianski’s Cuban-born father, Meyer Oleksnianski, moved his family from Cuba to Spain, to New York, and finally to Miami in 1971. He started the business 11 years later. In spite of operating in limbo, the Oleksnianskis have no intention of leaving behind their livelihood and their history.

These days, new walk-ins are a rarity. (The business relies primarily on exports). The few pedestrians who pass by the dilapidated downtown building at 1 NE First St. that houses the jewelry-supply business think it is closed.

Although multiple signs are prominently placed inside and outside the mall saying “Jewelry Display still open,” accompanied by hand-drawn maps on white poster-board, Oleksnianski knows he will end up leading the way for the handful of customers who still search for him.

The escalators are blocked off by yellow caution tape. Two elevators have long been deemed “not up to code” by the City of Miami, but they’re the only way to get up to the second-floor store. He personally escorts customers to the elevator, hoping it won’t hold them hostage like it sometimes does.

Customers will follow him around the dark tiled corridor, breaking the loud silence that engulfs Oleksnianski and his family — including Oleksnianski’s father, wife Esther, his mother, Ita, 10 employees, and a family dog named Motti.

“I don’t sleep very much these days,” said Oleksnianski, 51, who has helped his father grow the business. In 2009, the family expanded the store, thinking they had at least 10 years left in that location. Now, they are at risk of losing it all.

Last year, with just a few weeks before the holidays, Jewelry Display and around 80 other businesses received a certified letter from MetroMall Partners, Ltd, the management company for the building, saying tenants should make other arrangements by Jan. 31. Because Oleksnianski had a lease — one he says runs through 2015 — he initially didn’t worry.

In less than two months, the place was almost empty. Most tenants had been at MetroMall and in the jewelry district for more than two decades. Some found space in the newly renovated International Jewelry Center across the street. They left signs hoping their customers would follow.

Shortly after Martin Plasencia got his letter, he moved his gold and silver shop into a space across the street. He had started working at MetroMall as a gold polisher when he was 17.

“They threw us out like dogs,” he said. Six months later, the business is starting to regain its footing.

Oleksnianski had been one of three tenants for the past few months. Then, a few weeks ago, the lawyer who was on the seventh floor and the owner of a small gold kiosk facing the street both moved out.

Now, each day he wonders: Will today be the day the electricity will be turned off? Will today will be the day that the city condemns the crumbling structure? Will management send another letter telling them what the resolution will be?

No one is quite sure what is planned for the space. Former tenants heard rumors about Miami Dade College or New World School of the Arts possibly taking over but they don’t know anything.

Operators of the MetroMall did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

“This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t make any sense” Oleksnianski said. A security guard who patrols the abandoned ghost-mall watches for potential robbers and squatters.

Once, when Florida Power & Light was doing maintenance work during the week, Oleksnianski was not warned. The power was shut off for hours during the work day.

“It’s depressing, to say the least,” he said.

He is determined, nonetheless, to stay. He remembers the hustle and bustle of the jewelry district, when people walked by, passing architectural gems like the Seybold Building and a busy Macy’s department store. But the district is not shining as much these days.

A glimmer of nostalgia keeps Oleksnianski going.

“We were the first ones in, and we’ll be the last ones out,” he says.