When Jazel Morffe looks out the front window of his family’s Café San Juan, he sees a wasteland. He sees piles of gravel and mounds of rubble. He sees armies of orange barricades — so many that instead of counting sheep, he counts barricades. He sees backhoes rusting in the sun. He sees a Porta-potty, which is not very appetizing for diners seeking his mother’s Cuban food.
“When it rains, or when the construction workers break the water pipe, it floods, we have a lake in the middle of the road and you could get in a boat and sail around,” said Morffe, pausing to direct confused people to the bus stop on his block. Permiso, they say, where the heck is it? There’s no sidewalk — just a strip of dirt littered with trash — and the bus-stop sign was demolished by a dump truck, so nobody knows where to stand. “One time, we had to close for a week because our entrance was torn up. The crew would show up for 30 minutes to move the rocks from here to there, then they’d take a break. It still isn’t finished. It’s never-ending.”
West Flagler Street has been under construction for two years. It is an open wound, slashed through the gut of Little Havana. What began as an improvement project looks more like a destruction project — or the perfect set for a movie with an apocalyptic plot. All along the once-bustling artery lined with restaurants, markets, clinics, beauty salons, clothing boutiques, cigar shops, jewelry stores, auto repair garages, botanicas, farmacias and agencias de envios that are the lifeblood of Miami’s immigrant economy, small businesses are dying.
“Originally they told us the construction would take one year, but it feels like five,” Morffe said. “They told us it would transform the area, but they didn’t tell us about the stores that would fold, including my neighbor. We are barely surviving. This project has done more harm than good.”
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The $45 million overhaul by the Florida Department of Transportation has ripped out three miles of roadway along Flagler Street from Southwest Second Avenue to 27th Avenue and along Southwest First Street from SixthAvenue to 24th Avenue to replace a 75-year-old water main and drainage system, sidewalks, traffic signals and lights. A bike lane will be added.
“In a reconstruction project of this magnitude the underground utilities are the biggest challenge, and we have surpassed that,” said Sergies Duarte, FDOT spokesman. “There is a tremendous push to get it done. I can assure you we’re almost there.”
But take a walk up and down Flagler — and you better wear work boots or waders — and what’s striking is the sheer unruliness of the mess. The most common descriptions by merchants and residents: It looks like a war zone; it looks like a bomb went off. It looks like an earthquake hit.
“A crew comes to fix one part, then another crew demolishes it. Nothing makes any sense. Why are tasks done four times? Where is the oversight? Where is the accountability?” said Miguel Piedra, partner at the Rock Orange creative agency at 1862 West Flagler St., who watched the botched installation of a drain by his building that has left him stuck with a diarrhea-colored pond, or, as he calls it, “a fermenting cesspool.”
Piedra relocated to Little Havana — today also known as Little Managua and filled with Nicaraguan, Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran shop owners — to help spark development and honor his roots. His Cuban grandmother’s first job in Miami was at a sewing factory a block away. His father graduated from Miami High.
“We wanted to be part of gentrification here,” Piedra said. “We understand the struggle of making something from nothing. But this construction has been so disruptive it has set the area back at least three years.”
John Guilarte used his life's savings to open Edukos at 1701 Flagler, envisioning a friendly, tasty tavern that would add a hip hangout to the neighborhood. But he’s been frustrated by a persistent puddle and chewed-up sidewalk that has discouraged foot traffic.
“I had a huge hole and swimming pool in front of my restaurant for nine months,” Guilarte said. “Every time they work on something, they break something else, like the water main that was busted and spraying 10 feet in the air for four hours. You see the hurt. These are mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have the capital to endure this tragedy.”
Original project completion deadlines have come and gone. The altered goal of the first phase — caused by rain delays and the unexpected condition of underground pipes — was the end of 2017. Now FDOT is promising that First Street will be finished within three months and Flagler will be done by September, with a “weather permitting” caveat. Cynical business owners scoff, saying FDOT timetables mean nothing. They question why the project wasn’t planned in three-block increments rather than digging up the entire length of road. They wonder why weather interruptions weren’t built into the schedule, since rain is a daily occurrence during rainy season in South Florida. They cite examples of inefficiency and incompetence they have observed every painful step of the process. Most say they have lost 50 percent of their revenue because of lack of access, parking and signage.
“The construction is eviscerating Little Havana, endangering residents and destroying businesses,” said Andrew Frey, founder of the Tecela real estate development firm who built an eight-unit building off First Street and is planning another. “Total project duration is just one yardstick. Impact on the community is the true yardstick. You’ve got little old ladies crossing the street in ankle-deep mud to catch the bus. Weird traffic patterns causing unsafe conditions. No access to stores. A loss of jobs, an increase in crime. Compare this to finished projects in other neighborhoods. Why does Little Havana have to suffer so much?”
Time does not seem to be of the essence to FDOT’s contractors, say business owners who witness no actual construction for weeks at a time. On a recent morning, you could count two dozen pieces of heavy machinery sitting idle and 20 workers working. Otherwise, unnerving stillness.
“Hasn’t moved in six weeks,” said Melissa Martinez, looking out the display window of her New Solutions furniture store that is blocked by a dinosaur-sized excavator, its shovel embedded in chunks of concrete. Her sales are down 60 percent.
A few storefronts west, at 1370 West Flagler St., a heap of twisted metal in front of the Sol Insurance Agency looks like a modern industrial sculpture. The Bargain Box is fronted by a six-foot-tall hillock of gravel.
“Customers can’t find parking,” said Lazara Balntas, a cashier for the thrift store that raises money for the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We’re only open because our inventory is all donations. Many surrounding businesses have closed. We used to have $500 in daily sales, but it’s down to $200.”
Morffe is baffled by the slow progress.
“Here’s a typical picture: One guy working, five guys watching him and another guy sitting in tractor taking a nap,” he said.
Piedra sees no rhyme or reason to the work performed and redone.
“You see guys standing around, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, taking naps. We’d be fired if we did our jobs that way. Maybe FDOT needs to fire some of their engineers,” he said. “When they blocked my driveway I had to bring leftover sandbags from Hurricane Irma to create my own ramp.”
Piedra rented part of his building to Omer Pardillo, who was salsa queen Celia Cruz’s manager. Pardillo wanted to display Cruz’s memorabilia to the public but the dust generated by the construction was so damaging to treasured items and gowns that he decided to move.
“When it’s windy it’s like being in a sandstorm,” Piedra said. “I’ve driven better roads in rural Cuba.”
Dust and flooding have caused havoc and scared away customers, said Lourdes and Fernando Torres, owners of Advanced Auto Diagnostics, at 1779 West Flagler. She showed a cellphone video of water spewing from a broken pipe that submerged their whole block. They sloshed through calf-deep water in their shop.
“This section was finished and they broke it all open again. They open a hole and never return to fill it. They move a truck 10 feet, let it sit for weeks, then move it another 10 feet,” Lourdes said. “We ask about these problems but everybody passes the buck.”
Redundancy is a major complaint. A paver smoothes fresh blacktop on First Street like frosting on a cake; moments later two workers chop up a section with their shovels. A bobcat pulls up at Edukos and proceeds to claw recently-laid pavement into pieces. Guilarte's sign advertising "Tavern bites, craft beer and good vibes" is upended.
“I’m still waiting for my curb so the water doesn’t flow into the restaurant,” Guilarte said. “The fact that I’m even open is due to pure perseverance. The hardest thing in my life has been fighting FDOT.”
Merchants say they've seen sidewalks poured, intersections torn up and sections of street regraded and repaved multiple times.
"You've got manhole covers sticking up so high, you hit them and it's like bumper cars," Piedra said.
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez said he plans to refile a bill that would aid small businesses with mitigation grants and examine ways for FDOT to streamline its projects.
"We've been walking the corridor and we know that businesses have been hit hard and are cutting employees," said Luisana Perez, legislative aide to Rodriguez. "What can we learn so that we avoid these mistakes and use better practices for future construction?"
She was referring to the planned Calle Ocho project that Eighth Street business owners are dreading.
Frey has called upon FDOT to provide more transperancy about its timeline and commit the manpower and resources necessary to meet its completion dates.
In the meantime, business owners hope customers can find the fortitude to drive through the obstacle course, traipse across dirt, climb over rocks, step around trash and dodge puddles. Someday soon, the barricades will be moved to another unfortunate street and West Flagler will be free.
"If we're not all broke by then," Guilarte said. He looks outside at the bobcat shredding his sidewalk into crumbs. One worker pushes the levers. Four others sit under a tree, napping.