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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part Four ► Open Houses and Broken Laws

The meeting place
Is there illegal work going on inside the E.W.F. Stirrup House? I certainly think so. Get comfortable and read on. This is a long one, friends.

It was Friday noon (08-17-2012) and I was to meet someone in front of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This gent was going to get the full Charles Avenue History Tour, which I have now given to several people, several times. In fact, I'll give the Charles Avenue History Tour to anyone who shows an interest in helping me get the word out about the E.W.F. Stirrup House. It's almost like the Coconut Grove Ghost Walk, except the ghosts I'm talking about once lived on Charles Avenue. If you want to book a Charles Avenue History Tour, contact me.

This particular Charles Avenue History Tour turned out to be the longest one yet, almost 2 full hours. Either this gentleman was very interested, or he feigned interest very well; I only saw him glance at his watch once. Or, it could be I'm a much better story teller than I give myself credit for, despite all the swearing.



Since I arrived before he did I had a bit of time to kill and used that time to take a few pictures. The first picture I took was of a brand new structure that's popped up on Charles Avenue since the last time I was there, mere weeks ago.

Blessed relief with the E.W.F Stirrup House in background
This Port-A-Potty is just off the Charles Avenue driveway entrance to the Regions Bank, and is situated just east of the locked gate at the E.W.F. Stirrup property. Half off/half on the sidewalk and half off/half in the bank's driveway seemed a very unusual place for a Port-A-Potty, but I was undaunted. I used it anyway. After the 65 minute drive from Sunrise, it was actually a welcome sight, if my bladder could see. Usually my first stop in The Grove is the washroom for the Taurus Bar. I don't know how many times I can get away with "I'm a tourist and I need to use your washroom," but this week I didn't need to. It appeared as if my every need was being anticipated, and you have no idea how right that thought turned out to be in the end. It was a day of wonderful Synchronicity and being able to take a whiz without lying to the bartender at the Taurus was the least of it.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Still life: Damaged fence with dumpster
I noted some new, recent damage to the fence surrounding the Stirrup House, which is no big deal; chain linked fencing is easily fixed. However, the dumpster in the background MIGHT be a big deal. Then it occurred to me that the dumpster might be connected in some way to the Port-A-Potty. I made a mental note to keep an eye on the dumpster as best I can. I have seen many dumpsters come and go from inside the Stirrup property. However, I'm never around to know what they are being used for because I only get down to Coconut Grove once a week.

Then I hustled over to the front of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, just a few hundred feet away, to meet my Charles Avenue History Tour guest.

Skip ahead about an hour. My guest and I were standing directly in front of the Stirrup House while I conducted my Charles Avenue History Tour as fast as I could, because I never know when someone will tire of it. It's a long, complicated history that spans 120 years and several different Charles Avenue properties. All of that background becomes necessary before I can even get to what I consider the important part of the story: Who Controls What On Charles Avenue, which, is not coincidentally, Part Three of this continuing series. I was at the part in the Charles Avenue History Tour, where I start connecting all the dots. Suddenly a white pickup truck arrived and the two gents in the truck unlock the gate surrounding the Stirrup property and drive inside.

The Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums
My attention was now divided. I wanted to finish the Charles Avenue History Tour, but I could not help be curious about the pickup truck, the bed of which was filled to the gills with carpet and padding. Are they going to start carpeting the rotting E.W.F. Stirrup House, currently undergoing Demolition by Neglect. That would be like putting lipstick on a GOP vice presidential candidate.

However, it turned out the carpet was merely remnants ripped up from somewhere else and was being tossed into the dumpster. It is my assumption (without any proof whatsoever) that the carpet was ripped up during some renovation from inside the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums immediately south of the E.W.F. Stirrup House. It's not such a leap of imagination. The Grove Garden Residence Condominiums, or rather the powers that control it, seem to use the Stirrup property for its own benefit for all kinds of things.

To the left is a set of doors built into the wall that separates the E.W.F. Stirrup property from the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums. If one peeks through the partially open doorway, pictured at right, one discovers the "La Cava Wine Club," just one of four Chi Chi restaurants that occupy the ground floor of the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums. La Cava Wine Club is a near redundancy, since "la cava" means "the wine cellar." The other businesses are two high end restaurants, and the 100+ year old structure that houses the Taurus Bar, that began its life as a tea room. It was saved from the wrecker's ball when the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums was built around it.

That's not all the Stirrup property is being used for to benefit the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums. In the southeast corner of the lot are two air conditioning units (left) that feed cold air to somewhere within the condo complex, maybe to the wine bar, which is the closest business. There are also many piles of garbage (just one is pictured at right) and trash hidden behind the E.W.F. Stirrup House, away from the prying eyes of city inspectors, who would levy fines if they knew how much trash was being piled up on the property. This is clearly illegal. Even though I have seen dumpsters come and go, these piles of garbage just get larger and larger. It's clear the dumpsters are not being used for these piles of garbage. So what, exactly are their purpose? Turns out I wouldn't have all that long to find out.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself again.

While my attention was divided -- giving my Charles Avenue History Tour and trying to see what these gents are doing inside the Stirrup property -- I missed the most important thing of all. These men unlocked the side door of the Stirrup House and stepped inside. It happened so fast I didn't have time to get my camera out of my quick-release holster to take a picture of them entering the side door; I only managed to take a picture of the open door after they passed through it. I have never seen anyone in the Stirrup House before!!!

The open side door to the historic E.W.F. Stirrup House, currently undergoing Demolition by Neglect, and now hammers

Then we heard pounding from inside the house. The two gents are visible through the front window of the upper floor of the Stirrup House and they are ripping the room apart. I yell up, "What's going on?"  They yell down to me that the E.W.F. Stirrup House is being turned into a Bed & Breakfast.

WAIT!!! WHAT???

No! That can't be! It was only last week that I was on the City of Miami web site and confirmed for myself that the property is still zoned Residential. I was checking the status because last year, according to CBS Miami, Aries Development Group (oddly not named in the CBS article, but named by the Coconut Grove Grapevine) was petitioning the city for a change of zoning on the E.W.F. Stirrup property from the current Residential to Commercial. According to the CBS report a decision was to be made by May 26th of last year, which apparently had been deferred to the April 6th meeting. Now, fifteen months later -- as I mentioned above -- the Miami web site still lists it Residential and I can find no OFFICIAL mention anywhere that the zoning has been changed to accommodate the developer.

Now it's time to get even deeper into the weeds. According to a 2010 article in the South Florida Business Journal a man by the name of Gino Falsetto is head of Aries Development. According to the Coconut Grove Grapevine "Aries Development Group [are] the people [sic] that own Calamari and the Taurus restaurants." That seems somewhat misleading. It's my understanding that Aries Development Group also built the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums, which has never been fully occupied.

Who is Gino Falsetto? To begin with Gino Falsetto is, or was, Canadian. So am I, so I don't hold that against him. What's IS worth holding against him, however, is the string of bankruptcies Falsetto and his brothers left behind in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and just across the river in Quebec, which left Canadian taxpayers on the hook for a good chunk of change. According to the Ottawa Citizen:
An Ottawa success story in the restaurant business ended in failure Tuesday when two restaurants owned by the Falsetto brothers declared bankruptcy owing creditors and the tax department more than $1 million.

Sheriff's deputies acting on the orders of Revenue Canada Tuesday raided the House of Caesar on Somerset Street, Stephano's Restaurant and Bar on Bank Street and the Amoretto Restaurant on Lisgar Street seizing items including liquor, beer and cash to offset back taxes.

On Wednesday, Stephano's (521327 Ont. Inc.) and Amoretto (521326 Ont. Inc.) filed for bankruptcy. House of Caesar is not bankrupt, but has closed.

Stephano's and Amoretto are still operating under the trusteeship of Thorne Ernst & Whinney until a buyer, or buyers, can be found for the restaurants, said bankruptcy trustee Brian Doyle. [Fri Jan 30 1987, subscription required]
According to a February 3rd article in the same newspaper, the Revenue Canada seizure angered Gino Falsetto:
"They left us to operate three restaurants with no inventory and no cash," says an irate Gino Falsetto, the president of Falsetto Holding.

The failures mark the end of a restaurant business that in its heyday had annual gross revenues of about $4.5 million, 120 employees and a $1-million payroll.

It started eight years ago when the four Falsetto brothers - Gino, Antonio, Enrico and Stephen - and a handful of shareholders opened the House of Caesar.

Expansion was rapid with Amoretto opening next, then Stephano in 1982 and finally Sapper's Bridge in 1984.

Revenue Canada's action was the result of a series of financial problems that started with the opening of Sapper's Bridge - a classy restaurant in the Atrium in the Byward Market.

In less than two years, the Sapper's Bridge operation lost $1.2 million, half of that in the six months before it went bankrupt last March.

"Our problems, no question about it, started with our Sapper's Bridge operation," Gino said in a recent interview.
A PDF file found on the internet, titled "The Gino Falsetto Bed and Breakfast Con, not only goes into some of Falsetto's Canadian business failures, but more importantly, traces the various corporations that claim an interest in the E.W.F. Stirrup House. Assuming the information is correct, it's like those Russian dolls, with one nested inside the next, nested inside the next, nested inside the next. And, whaddaya know, it all goes back to Gino Falsetto and Aries Development.

The author of the PDF, who has his own issues and lawsuits with Gino Falsetto and his business partner Pierre Heafy (who is also from Canada), maintains a web site called Heafy-Falsetto Leaks. The author comes off as a combination of Crank and Gadfly, leaning towards Crank. Yet, he has obsessively followed the business activities of Gino Falsetto and asks 3 legitimate questions about the nesting-Russian-doll aspect of the property's ownership, which I don't feel qualified to answer:
Why, Mr. Falsetto, the shenanigans of hiding the true identity of corporate ownership of 3242 Charles LLC? It couldn’t possibly be simply a maneuver to accrue benefits under the IRS Tax Code? What if it is a means of building a solid wall should creditors knock on Gino Falsetto’s door?
But, I digress.

Back to the story. To remind you: I'm yelling up to the guys tearing apart the front room of the 2nd floor of the historic E.W.F. Stirrup House and they're yelling down at me. One of the guys agrees with me that it's a beautiful house, needing restoration. The other one is saying that it should be set on fire because it's full of wood rot, mold, and termite damage. This is troubling because my guest on the Charles Avenue History Tour had just said almost the exact same thing to me. However, he was talking about how unscrupulous property owners have been known to do away with inconvenient structures standing in the way of development and then blame drug addicts or electrical problems for the ensuing conflagration.

I shudder at the thought that someone would do such a thing to the beautiful, historic 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House. As I am shuddering I have a flash of inspiration, so I yell up, "Can I take a look?"

And they said YES!!!  

AMAZING!!!

It has been my dream to see the inside of this house ever since I first discovered it in early 2009. Even though they gave me permission, I knew I was being subversive when I entered the Stirrup House. I took as many pictures as I could while I was in the house before I skedaddled. Not all of them came out good, but I am including those as well.

This is what the inside of the historic E.W.F. Stirrup House looked like as of yesterday.

The mud room just inside the side door of the E.W.F. Stirrup House.
Many of the rooms are used to store construction materials and other junk.

Another ground floor room. The house had many small rooms and no large ones.


This seemed to be the largest room in the entire house. The front of the house is through that door of the bright room.

Another room in a warren's maze of rooms. More storage.

Another room. More storage.

Upstairs. A cute little built in shelving system.
I can imagine E.W.F. Stirrup's books, family photographs, and knickknacks  here.

A lovely little window seat on the second floor with a western exposure. Afternoon sunlight would fill this window.

Another room on the second floor looking towards the front of the house to the room where the men are working.

Another view of the room on the 2nd floor where the men are working, looking west.

This is where the work was going on, the front room on the 2nd floor. The guys are ripping the paneling off the wall.
While I was unable to get pictures of it, the boards being pulled down have termite tracks all on the back.

Men at work. Behind the wooden paneling are wooden walls, not lathing. Houses of this era were built entirely with
Miami Dade Pine. It is impossible to get Miami Dade pine these days. It's all been chopped down.


This is the room above the front porch, which provides the shade below. It appears
as if the white wall at left was once an outside wall because it's made of siding.
That screen door is very pretty and highly sought after by restorationists.

The same room as above, but the reverse angle. It's very small.

Paneling about to be chucked to the ground from the 2nd story window. You can see the
elements that lead me to believe this was once an exterior 2nd floor porch: the screen door,
the solid door behind the workman, the exterior siding, and the pitched roof above.

The top of the stairs with more built in shelving.

Rooms after rooms after rooms. The back of the house on the 2nd floor.

Aside from the room where the guys were working, this was the least cluttered one.

A relatively modern bathroom.

Another view of a relatively modern bathroom.

Coming down the stairs. That's the front door.


I'm not entirely sure what those things are, but they might be shelves. The rest? Who knows?


Junk and exposed PVC drain pipes. Sorry it's out of focus.

Another room on the 1st floor, just inside the mud room.

Another view of the same room At this point I decided I better get out while the getting was still good.

Now I wish I had taken more pictures. All told I guess I spent about 15 or 20 minutes inside the house and I was nervous the entire time. Even though the workers gave me permission, if anyone higher up the chain of command showed up it could have gotten dicey, especially if they learned I was the one writing all about the E.W.F. Stirrup House.

Fortunately my guest was still waiting for me when I left. He had declined stepping on to the property himself because, as a newly minted immigrant who had only recently received his Green Card, he didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize his stay in 'Merka. However, he was pretty much out of time. So I summed up a few bullet points for him, we shook hands, and parted.

It was only after we parted, and I was already on my drive home, did it occur to me that I had witnessed a potentially illegal act. Whether the property is zoned Residential or Commercial is something that I don't know for certain. Unconfirmed reports say the zoning has been changed. The City of Miami web site informed me last week that it was Residential. I tried to locate the same information today to see if it had changed and couldn't even find the place where I had been last week to see if it had changed in the meantime. It's a very confusing web site.

However, that's not what is allegedly illegal. The law is pretty clear about construction and renovations and it's no different in Miami than anywhere else in the country. There must be a Building Permit issued by the Building Department. Furthermore, the Building Permit must be conspicuously displayed. I saw no Building Permit outside the house or inside the house.

That's why the minute I got home I called the City of Miami and reported it to the Building Inspection Department as a potentially illegal work site. I stressed with the woman who took the information that this needed to be expedited above a normal building inspection because this is a 120-year old structure and there is a fear that the owner/developer is trying to get away with making so many changes it will be too late for the E.W.F. Stirrup House to be the Community Resource Center that neighbourhood rumours say was intended when the Grove Gardens Residences Condominiums was granted ITS building permits.

I have a confirmation number for my complaint and everything. So yeah, MoFos. If you are wondering who reported you, it was me.

Previous Chapters in Unpacking Coconut Grove


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