Little Havana - Flagami

Little Havana businesses blame rising rent on fake name: West Brickell

LeKoke Wine and Bites in Little Havana is fighting high rent at a small strip mall where other tenants have been forced to shut down.
LeKoke Wine and Bites in Little Havana is fighting high rent at a small strip mall where other tenants have been forced to shut down. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Its closeness to Brickell, one of the most expensive areas of Miami, should be an advantage for Little Havana. But all that luxury is having the opposite effect, especially on Calle Ocho businesses.

The area west of Brickell to Fourth Avenue has been given the tony nickname of West Brickell, and shops in the area, which has become a tourist destination in the past decade, are facing rising rents.

“Little Havana is not West Brickell,” said Jorge Fernández-Pla, a real estate agent who specializes in commercial properties. He added that the new name is simply to make the area more attractive to buyers.

“They want to remove the stigma it may have, for whatever reason,” Fernández-Pla said. “It's the same as when they refer to Allapattah as West Wynwood.”

He added that although real estate prices in Little Havana have been rising, they remain lower than in West Brickell.

“A place on Calle Ocho and Eighth Avenue rents for $46 per square foot. But on Fourth Avenue (the limit of West Brickell), the square foot in a modern building goes for $70,” he added.

One survivor of the rising rents is LeKoke Wines and Bites, the last of the businesses on a strip mall on Calle Ocho and 12th Avenue bought in 2014 by West Brickell Properties.

LeKoke has been waging a legal battle for two years to keep a lease that runs until December 2021.

“West Brickell Properties has done everything except talk about the contract. They have never wanted to sit at a negotiating table,” said attorney Bryan Ramos, of the Cass Ramos Law Firm, which represents LeKoke.

The latest chapter of the battle was an eviction notice by West Brickell Properties against LeKoke, effective April 11. A judge revoked the order, but owners Ronald Torres and Laura Espinosa said that by the time they reentered the property three hours later, it had been vandalized.

"I felt violated and trampled over," said Espinosa.

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Laura Espinosa and Ronald Torres, owners of LeKoké Wine and Bites. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

El Nuevo Herald tried several times to contact Marcus Lapciuc, administrator of West Brickell Properties. But his lawyer, Darius Asly, said Lapciuc was out of town.

Lapciuc told el Nuevo Herald in August that he bought the building on a bankruptcy case and was investing $2 million to renovate it. He said LeKoke's rent was $10.77 per square foot, which left him with a 77-cent profit per square foot after he paid taxes and insurance. He also said that he was ready to work with the owners of LeKoke to reach an agreement.

“He told us that this is West Brickell,” said Torres, adding that a comparison was impossible because a shop across the street from him has been covered with cardboard for the past seven years.

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Roberto Ramos, owner of CubaOcho Museum & Performing Arts Center, said higher rent is causing hardship. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

A similar challenge faces one of the contributors to Little Havana's new prosperity, Roberto Ramos, owner of CubaOcho Museum & Performing Arts Center on Eighth Street and 15th Avenue.

“The prize for having contributed to develop this area is to have the rent doubled,” said Ramos, who recalled that officials told him they could not guarantee his security 10 years ago, when he opened his combination art gallery, bar and music venue.

“Calle Ocho has changed more in these 10 years than in all the previous 30 years,” Ramos added. “The three tourists who came to this area when I opened felt cheated. Now there's a lot of tourism. The buses arrive constantly.”

Ramos said he believes he is contributing to Cuban culture and art because his business serves everyone from tourists to students studying important paintings such as La Rumba by Antonio Sánchez Araujo and El triunfo de Finlay by Esteban Valderrama.

But he doubts whether he can continue in the same spot because his rent was raised to $31 per square foot — double what he paid when he opened — by East Little Havana Community Development Corp., the nonprofit that owns the building.

“I am going to have to do away with the concept of a museum because I am desperate. I can't continue to pay so much money,” he said. “The sale of art is slow, and I am selling the chairs, the tables and everything to tourists.”

Ramos said he may have to reinvent CubaOcho as a restaurant.

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Another steep rent increase forced Emperatriz Quiñones to close her yogurt shop, Yofigur, in the same commercial center as LeKoke in June 2016.

She lost $100,000 with the closing. “I haven't had the strength to open another business,” she said.

LeKoke owner Torres said small businesses “have no room” in the area. “If you don't have money, you're nobody.”

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Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo agreed that Little Havana businesses are in danger.

“There's a group of people who are investing in properties and who want to de-Cubanize Little Havana and turn it into a Wynwood on steroids,” he said.

Carollo said the businesses should retain the character of Little Havana because that's what tourists are looking for when they visit the neighborhood.

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A sign illustrates the remodeling of an empty strip mall on Calle Ocho where only one business remains open. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Although Calle Ocho saw more than two million tourists last year, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, it still faces many challenges. The lack of security and parking and the heavy vehicular traffic are just some of the complaints from business owners.

“I can't charge $25 for a glass of wine because the area does not yet merit it," said LeKoke's Espinosa, arguing that the area has not yet hit the potential for the kind of rents that owners want to charge.

Follow Sarah Moreno en Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH
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