Months before Miami approved a controversial Coral Gables trolley garage in the predominantly black West Grove over neighbors’ objections, homeowners contacted a Coral Gables city commissioner looking for help.
The commissioner, Ralph Cabrera, said this week he passed the request along to his city manager and asked him to respond. He never did.
“I was sensitive to what was going on,” said Cabrera, who is running for mayor and has long favored firing City Manager Pat Salerno. “I felt for these people and I thought wow, this is not fair.”
Residents in the neighborhood, which includes a slice of Coral Gables, have been fighting to stop the 12-bay trolley garage being built in the 3300 block of Douglas Road, next to a historic neighborhood. They have long complained that Coral Gables officials ignored their pleas to address the matter. They and other residents in the Grove argue the project violates the city’s Miami 21 zoning code that calls for development that would “complement the character of the entire community and promote the history of the Island District.” Along with staging a rally at the site Saturday, they started a petition at www.change.org.
Two weeks after Cabrera sent the email in November 2011, he again asked City Manager Pat Salerno at a City Commission meeting about the project and mentioned the email.
“I never heard back, and today’s Dec. 13, and I can’t tell you what happened because I didn’t get a response from the manager. I did not get a response from anyone,” Cabrera said, according to minutes of the meeting.
Salerno answered that he passed the information along to the developer and did not respond because the commissioner had not specifically asked for a response.
“You said, here it is, take care of it. We did,” Salerno said in the meeting.
On Friday, a request for comment from Salerno was answered by the city’s director of economic sustainability, Cynthia Birdsill. Birdsill said it was inappropriate for the city to get involved because the developer, Astor Development, is building the project.
More importantly, Birdsill said, Coral Gables did not sign off on the project until after the city of Miami approved it.
“That’s a really important fact, that we didn’t enter any agreement until the appeal period was over and nobody appealed,” she said.
But residents, who said the appeal fee of at least $1,500 was more than they could afford, are having trouble seeing the distinction.
“Coral Gables did not try to accommodate one thing,” said Jihad Rashid, vice president of the West Village Homeowner’s Association, who contacted Cabrera’s office. “It was just going to be their way.”
Even if the developer was handling the project, Cabrera said, someone from the city should have met with residents.
“I’m the government official giving direction to a staff member, and nothing happened, and that’s why these people are so angry,” he said. “None of this comes to the commission. The only thing that comes to the commission is the pretty application and then we’re asked to rubber stamp it. That’s the M.O. in Coral Gables.”