The Biscayne Times

Jan 22nd
The Dragon Has Lost Its Magic PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
March 2018

Dixie Arts District hangs on a sour note

TDixie_1wo years ago Ira Rothstein hired a pair of artists to paint a dragon mural on his L-shaped retail building on 147th Street and W. Dixie Highway in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. The intent of the mural was to create a sense of “wow” on an otherwise drab thoroughfare lined with strip malls, empty buildings, auto repair shops, and faded apartment buildings.

“A ‘wow, I hate it!’ or ‘wow, I love it!’ At least you stopped, you had a reaction,” Rothstein explained to the BT 17 months ago.

At the time, Rothstein, an energetic man in his late 60s, fond of peppering his sentences with the phrase “you ready?” was telling everyone who’d listen of his desire to form a Dixie Arts District that would center around W. Dixie Highway, a winding backroad that zigzags through northeast Miami-Dade.

This Dixie Arts District would not only absorb artists being priced out of downtown Miami and Wynwood, it would also celebrate the artists, musicians, and production professionals who already live in northeast Dade.

Rothstein’s vision of a gentrification-proof arts district was so tantalizing that Biscayne Times devoted its August 2016 cover story, “Old Road, New Idea,” to his scheme.

Today, however, most of W. Dixie Highway looks pretty much the way it did two years ago. Yet despite appearances, land is getting more expensive along the road.

“In the West Dixie Corridor, land values have gone up between 50 and 100 percent in the last two or three years,” says Adam Tiktin, president of Tiktin Real Estate, a commercial real estate firm based on W. Dixie Highway at NE 170th Street.

The increase in land value is all about the prospect of development. In Ojus, just west of Aventura, a 400-unit residential community called Gables Aventura has just been completed, and new office buildings are breaking ground. More residential and commercial projects are being proposed farther south in North Miami Beach and North Miami.

But the Dixie Arts District? It doesn’t exist. And it may never exist.


Instead, Rothstein is being sued by two people who once sought to help him create the District. Gus Cuervo-Rubio and his wife, Alice Billman, claim, in a lawsuit filed in December 2017 by their attorney, Gavin White, that Rothstein isn’t honoring their contract with him, which allows them to buy his 45-year-old, dragon-adorned commercial building at 14703 W. Dixie Highway.

Cuervo-Rubio and Billman own Kung Fu Connection, a 9900-square-foot martial arts studio that operates in Rothstein’s 14,830-square-foot building. They contend that their three-year lease gives them the right to purchase the dragon building for $1.6 million. They also claim that the lease requires Rothstein to repair the building and to handle its 40-year recertification (a required inspection). But Rothstein, the suit alleges, has yet to complete the recertification, thus encumbering it with fines and liens.

Rothstein, in turn, has filed an eviction action against Kung Fu Connection, claiming the owners owe him $96,268 for ten months of unpaid rent.

Rothstein declined to speak to the BT. “Landlord has fiduciary relationship,” Rothstein explained in a text. “I don’t discuss my tenants’ business with other tenants or anyone but the tenant. Sorry.”

His attorney, John Agnetti, didn’t return phone calls or e-mails from the BT.

Cuervo-Rubio, known as “Master Rubio” by his kung fu students, insists he doesn’t owe rent because, since February 2016, he has had a purchase option, which he has exercised. Under Florida law, Cuervo-Rubio asserts, this makes him an “equitable” owner. Rothstein, though, refuses to talk to him. “I’ve made numerous attempts to buy the building, but he disappears, becomes non-responsive for five or six months at a time,” he says.

As for the Dixie Arts District, Cuervo-Rubio’s lawsuit claims it was a “fraudulent inducement” cooked up by Rothstein. “He created this narrative to improve the area to get me to sign this lease,” he says -- a lease, he adds, that Rothstein is now not honoring.

Aside from commissioning the dragon mural, Cuervo-Rubio says, Rothstein hasn’t done any of the things he promised, including buying additional properties beyond the four aging shopping centers (including the dragon mural building) that Rothstein’s family now owns. “He didn’t do anything for two years,” Cuervo-Rubio says.

Lisa Yanowitz, a real estate broker who manages her family’s properties on and near W. Dixie Highway, says she too was sold on Rothstein’s Dixie Arts District idea, and was eager to help. Then Yanowitz lost contact with Rothstein for months. “To be extremely honest, not much has moved,” she says. “I haven’t talked to Ira for a while.”


Ron Platt, a North Miami-based real estate broker affiliated with Keller Williams, says he was so enamored of Rothstein’s arts district idea that he contacted artists displaced by Wynwood’s rising rents about moving into the area, as well as people who help form non-profits. But when Platt tried to follow up with Rothstein, Rothstein never returned his calls. “He does this disappearing act,” Platt says.

This tendency to disappear was something the BT asked Rothstein about back in July 2016. His response: Not taking calls was his way of focusing on a certain task. “Multitasking is not one of my strengths,” he explained.

Talking, though, was a Rothstein strength, when you could reach him. In 2016 Rothstein took the BT on a tour of W. Dixie Highway. During that time, he talked about his purported business history, including the time he briefly ran a newspaper at the future dragon building in the early 1970s, and his feud with the owners of Angel’s Night Club, a strip club and hip-hop venue that operated at 148th Street and W. Dixie Highway until the county’s nuisance abatement board shut it down in 2012, following a series of shootings.

Rothstein also outlined his desire to form the Dixie Arts District between 125th and 163rd streets along W. Dixie Highway. This district would include a hidden, adjacent warehouse area near NE 147th Street filled with not only storage facilities but also production and recording studios, retail establishments, a gym, the Miami Auto Museum, and the WPBT Channel 2 station.

This district, as Rothstein described it, would include zoning that would encourage developers to build live-work loft spaces affordable enough for artists and locals to purchase.

“I want to provide an environment where people won’t just spend half a million dollars on a picture, but -- you ready? -- a place where people want to live and work in the area, have a studio, make their art, find it comfortable because they’re not going to get thrown out because all of a sudden they can’t afford to live there,” Rothstein said then.

Back in the summer of 2015, Kung Fu Connection was being displaced from its home of 17 years at 125th Street and NE 14th Avenue by a developer intent on demolishing the building and replacing it with a storage facility. By that September, Cuervo-Rubio and Billman were negotiating with Rothstein for a deal that would enable them to move into Rothstein’s L-shaped building prior to April 2016, Kung Fu’s last month at their old location.

“These negotiations lasted several months, largely due to Rothstein’s extended period of non-responsiveness,” declares Cuervo-Rubio and Billman’s legal complaint. When Rothstein did talk, he told the couple they could “work together to revitalize the area around NE 147th Street and W. Dixie Highway into an arts district by ‘seeding a cultural and artistic vibe into the neighborhood,’” the complaint states. Such talk was appealing to Cuervo-Rubio, a part-time musician who owned a nearby production studio, and to Billman, who has run the non-profit Heroes Unite since 1993.


During the course of the negotiations, according to the complaint, Cuervo-Rubio and Billman sought a joint venture agreement that would enable them to buy the building from Rothstein at a price of between $1.5 and $1.6 million.

Rothstein, though, had other ideas. He demanded a lease in which Kung Fu Connection would pay $64,200 in the first year and, thereafter, between $6955 and $8560 a month. Last-minute corrections enacted by Rothstein, according to the couple’s lawsuit, increased the purchase clause to exactly $1.6 million.

Faced with few prospects of finding a new location before the deadline, Cuervo-Rubio and Billman signed Rothstein’s lease in December.

During their discussions, according to the lawsuit, Rothstein promised to form a non-profit called the Dixie Arts District Association (DADA), and turn its management over to Billman. He also claimed he would replace the dragon mural building’s other tenants -- which included a driving school, two tax preparation businesses, and a hair salon -- with businesses that had more artistic inclinations.

Rothstein, though, never got around to handing control of DADA to Billman. Nor did he ever move to evict his other tenants. Rothstein previously acknowledged to the BT that he was reluctant to evict anyone who paid their rent, especially small businesses. And Marie Dessources, who operated her salon, Exclusive Unique, in Rothstein’s building for nearly 20 years, confirms that Rothstein never moved to oust her. “He’s a very, very good landlord,” she says. “We have no complaints.”

By March 2017, Cuervo-Rubio and Billman discovered that the building didn’t have its 40-year recertification inspection, according to their lawsuit. Six months later, they allege, Rothstein informed Cuervo-Rubio and Billman that “the 40-year certification has been completed but, for unknown reasons, had not yet been filed, but if Gold Raven [the company run by Cuervo-Rubio and Billman] entered into a contract with Maro [Rothstein’s company] concerning the real property, then Rothstein would cause the 40-year certification to be filed with Miami-Dade County.”

Records from Miami-Dade County’s Building Department, though, indicate that the building has been cited for unpermitted construction work and for not having its 40-year certification as far back as October 2014. Besides $1000 in fines, the building department has placed a “repair or demolish” order on the property.

To lift that lien, the building’s owner must submit “an engineer’s report addressing the structural/electrical integrity of this structure,” according to county records.

In spite of the shabby condition, Cuervo-Rubio says the building’s potential value has increased. “It’s now worth $3 million,” he says, noting that the asking price for a similar property across the street has increased by some 30 percent.

But Cuervo-Rubio seems more interested in fixing the property with the help of potential investors. “We can put in a Starbucks,” he says. Several months ago, with the help of his students, Cuervo-Rubio cleared a vacant storefront space and backroom area attached to his leased space. He says those spaces could be used for rehearsals or live musical acts.

But... “I haven’t proceeded further because I don’t own the building,” Cuervo-Rubio says. “I don’t trust this guy [Rothstein]. I can’t trust this guy.”


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