RIVIERA BEACH — City councilwoman Dawn Pardo climbed into a backhoe on Singer Island Wednesday and delivered the first blow to the Ocean Mall.
Donning a hard hat, Pardo pulled on the controls, forcing the backhoe's metal arm to crash down on the roof of Kim's Boutique. After 36 years, the dilapidated mall was being razed to make way for 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants being built by Catalfumo Construction and Development.
"It felt like the end of an era and the beginning of progress," Pardo said after exiting the backhoe.
Joey Eichner, president of Catalfumo Development and Management, an arm of the construction company, said the demolition, which drew about 100 onlookers Wednesday, should take two weeks to complete. The new mall is scheduled to open in June 2009, he said.
"We've waited a long time for this day," said Eichner, whose boss, Dan Catalfumo, struck a deal with the city to redo the mall in December 2006. "I think we have come up with a project that everyone can be proud of."
City officials tried to offer an appropriate eulogy for the mall, built in 1972 on 11 acres of city-owned beachfront property. Since then, it's been battered by hurricanes, become home to the annual music festival and a source of controversy during debates over redevelopment in Riviera Beach.
"As they say in the cycle of life, someone dies and a baby cries," said Floyd Johnson, executive director of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. "The old Ocean Mall is going to die."
Three tenants remain, though, including Solomon Kedmi who sued Catalfumo last week. Kedmi, owner of Portofino Italian Grill, said the Palm Beach Gardens builder is trying to evict him instead of paying to relocate him.
"They are claiming they have the right to shut us down, while they do the redevelopment and still make me pay rent," said Kedmi, who pays $13,138 a month in rent and has 14 years left on his lease.
Eichner denied Kedmi's claim and vowed to build around Portofino if necessary. In addition, Eichner is still negotiating a relocation with Subway and 7-Eleven, Eichner said.
When it comes to the Ocean Mall, Catalfumo is used to a fight. Led by Pardo, residents formed the Public Beach Coalition and overwhelmingly passed a referendum in March 2007 that limits buildings on the city's beach to five stories.
The measure killed Catalfumo's initial plan to build a 28-story Marriott condo-hotel along with the new mall. A year later, Pardo's efforts paid off, when voters elected her to the council.
"I fought Mr. Catalfumo," Pardo said. "Now I'm working with him as a partner."