Miami-Dade County

For one family, selling land on the Miami River is complicated

Manny Prieguez Jr. holds two Florida lobsters in 2008. His family is selling its wholesale lobster & stone crab business on the Miami River, potentially complicating plans to replace the Southwest First Street Bridge (seen in the background.)
Manny Prieguez Jr. holds two Florida lobsters in 2008. His family is selling its wholesale lobster & stone crab business on the Miami River, potentially complicating plans to replace the Southwest First Street Bridge (seen in the background.) MARICE COHN BAND

Plans by a former state lawmaker to sell his family’s Miami River properties to the highest bidder may have serious unintended consequences for a $70 million bridge replacement project, a nearby historic hotel and the river’s seafood trade.

Over the last year or so, Manny Prieguez Jr. has been quietly fielding offers from interested buyers for his family’s four properties, where they operate Miami River Lobster and Stone Crab. Recently, he began efforts to remove restrictions from the land, including a historic designation and preservation easement, in order to make it more attractive to a buyer.

For Prieguez, it’s all about maximizing his family’s profit after nearly 50 years of wholesaling crustaceans and exporting them overseas. He said his father, 83, who founded the business, is ready to retire.

“My dad has worked really hard over many years on the Miami River. He rented his first property in ’69,” said Prieguez Jr., a former state representative who now works as a lobbyist. “This land is the summation of his work and of my mom’s work.”

But where Prieguez sees a payday, his neighbors — and the government — see complications.

For one, Prieguez’s land straddles the Southwest First Street Bridge, a worn drawbridge built in 1929 and in need of replacing. The Florida Department of Transportation has planned a $70 million rebuild of the bridge, including $12.3 million to buy Prieguez’s land on either side of the bridge. But Prieguez rejected the offer to his family’s Manny Seafood Corp., made amid a land rush on the river, leaving FDOT to ponder whether a redesign is necessary before commencing construction in 2018.

“At this point in time, the design requires a partial acquisition of the Manny Seafood property,” wrote FDOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz. “As the design plans progress, the required right of way may change.”

Prieguez is also getting push-back from activists and his new neighbor, developer Avra Jain, after successfully pushing to remove his property from the South River Drive Historic District. The district was created in the 1980s to preserve some of the oldest frame vernacular buildings in the city, including the Miami River Inn. But by the time Prieguez bought a parcel in the historic district in 2008, a building previously on the site had been demolished due to years of neglect, and plans by previous owner Sallye Jude to rebuild a specially designed restaurant had fizzled.

Jain, who purchased the Miami River Inn in April after famously renovating the Vagabond hotel in Miami’s Upper Eastside, says Prieguez’s property remains integral to her hotel’s success and should never have been stripped of its historic designation — without her knowledge, to boot.

On Thursday, she will ask Miami commissioners to reinstate the historic designation on Prieguez’s property at 109 SW South River Dr. In a letter of appeal, her attorney, Paul Savage, told city officials that they’re damaging Jain’s property by potentially allowing intense development that would block out her access to the water.

“The South River Drive Historic District is grounded upon the presence of an historic community near the river,” he wrote. “The removal of the 109 parcel from the district, with no conditions or further limitations, works against the very preservation for which the district exists.”

The dispute with Jain comes just weeks after the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Little Havana among the nation’s most threatened historic neighborhoods. The designation was prompted by a controversial, ongoing attempt by the city to allow for more intense development in the neighborhood’s east side, where Prieguez’s family owns one of hundreds of parcels to be rezoned.

Ironically, should Miami rezone Prieguez’s property and reject Jain’s appeal, they might actually cost the state money by forcing them to pay more to acquire land for the bridge project, whether through negotiations or even more costly eminent domain proceedings — the process by which government forces the sale of a property, but must pay market value for it. Prieguez says he hasn’t decided yet whether to sell to FDOT, but there haven’t been any conversations about eminent domain.

“At the end of the day I might sell to FDOT, it’s a possibility,” he said. “They’re interested just like many others are interested. But the bottom line here is we haven’t come to an agreement.”

Meanwhile, regardless of who buys the Prieguez land, it’s likely that scores of crabbers and lobstermen who lease space at Miami River Lobster and Stone Crab will need to find a new home. There are other wholesaling businesses on the river, but many sea captains rely on the Prieguez business.

“If that property were ever to go from marine industry nature to, let’s say condominium in nature, it would be a serious loss to the industry,” said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, chairman of the Miami River Commission. “There are very few places like it.”