To make way for a big mixed-use project on LeJeune Road, Coral Gables made a deal to move the maintenance depot for its popular trolley-bus line somewhere else — as it turns out, a block outside the city line in a residential neighborhood in Miami’s predominantly black west Coconut Grove.
Now the start of foundation work for the big new depot over the Christmas holidays has provoked a furious backlash from West Grove residents. They charge that the Gables — with the cooperation of the city of Miami — is dumping an unwanted industrial facility on a low-income, minority neighborhood that lacks the clout to fight it. The new depot site, which fronts Douglas Road, backs up to single-family homes and sits catty-corner from a church.
“Could it be more obvious?” asked Pierre Sands, president of the Coconut Grove Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association, adding that Miami and Gables officials ignored strenuous objections to the new depot from surrounding homeowners and local organizations, including residents of an abutting West Grove historic district that lies within Gables city boundaries. “It’s a different standard for us, and we’re not ignorant of that. We just get ramrodded every time.’’
Bound by zoning rules
One thing that especially rankles residents, Sands said: Gables officials never appeared at community meetings to explain their rationale, sending the private developer building the new garage to speak in their stead.
Miami planning and zoning officials, meanwhile, approved the new depot without a formal public hearing, saying they were bound by zoning rules that allow the facility to be built so long as it’s designed to minimize its impact on the surroundings.
The new one-story garage, which has room for offices and 12 trolleys although the Gables’ fleet has just six of the buses, will be completely enclosed and air-conditioned to contain noise, fumes and odors, and work will be limited to basic maintenance, the city said. The building’s exterior has Caribbean-style architecture to echo the area’s Bahamian heritage.
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes West Grove, said there was nothing he could legally do to block the depot. Instead, he said, he and city planning director Francisco Garcia focused on improving the initial proposal by the developer, Astor Development, to make it more compatible with the neighborhood. Sarnoff said he also won an agreement from Astor to donate $200,000 to improve a local city park, although that has not been finalized.
“It was a less-than-desirable situation, and we made it palatable,’’ Sarnoff said. “In fact, I think it’s an improvement. It’s a very attractive building.’’
Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason was on vacation and did not respond to a message requesting an interview. Gables Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. had an attorney for Astor, which selected and purchased the site and is also building the new depot for the city, return a Herald reporter’s call.
The Gables’ director of economic sustainability, Cynthia Birdsill, said the deal with Astor — in the works for more than a year — left the details up to the developer, including appearing in community forums. Under a swap agreement approved in August, the Gables will turn over the existing trolley garage site to Astor for development of its Merrick Manor project once the developer completes the new depot.