Six years ago, Coconut Grove Village Council Chairman Marc Sarnoff won a seat on the Miami City Commission after he helped lead a neighborhood fight against a Home Depot store at U.S. 1 and McDonald Street.
But on Thursday night, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff fielded angry questions from Grove council members and residents who demanded to know why he didn’t fight a trolley-bus garage now under construction in a residential section of the West Grove, just a mile from the Home Depot site.
“Mr. Sarnoff, I remember this pamphlet you put out on another project, and you were against it, and you said in your pamphlet — you said it couldn’t happen because it was a historic corridor. But in this case I don’t see your vehemence,” said Toya Johnson, owner of Barber Doll’s Community Barber Shop on Grand Avenue.
Johnson was a part of a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting in the commission chambers at Miami City Hall in the Grove Thursday night. Sarnoff called the meeting to explain his views on the garage, in the 3300 block of Douglas Road.
The garage will serve trolleys owned by the nearby city of Coral Gables. A development company, Astor, agreed to build the garage for the Gables after that city approved a mixed-use luxury apartment building on a block that includes the existing trolley garage.
Miami never held a public hearing on the garage because, according to Sarnoff and city staffers, the developer did not need a zoning change or other approval that would have required a hearing. Neighbors disagree, and several abutting property owners filed a lawsuit against the city shortly before Thursday’s meeting, asking a judge to stop the project.
Sarnoff, meanwhile, said the outcomes in the Home Depot and trolley garage cases were not that different. In both cases, he said, the builders proposed projects they had a right to build under existing zoning.
“Home Depot is there, it exists, because it could come in as a matter of right,” Sarnoff said. “All we could do is control the size.”
After the neighbors protested, Home Depot decided to go with a smaller store. Similarly, Sarnoff argued, he was able to persuade Astor to take steps to reduce the effect of the garage on the neighborhood. For instance, the developer agreed to completely enclose and air-condition the building to reduce fumes, to incorporate Bahamian architectural features into the building to match the West Grove’s history, and contribute more than $200,000 for a football field at Armbrister Park on Jefferson Street.
He also presented information to show that fumes and noise from the garage will not be a threat to health or the environment.
But the crowd was unmoved.
“The football field to me is like a twisted version of a field of dreams,” said Pierre Sands, president of the Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association. “Build a park and we’ll be magically happy. You’re buying Manhattan for trinkets.”
And Grove Village Council member Pat Sessions took issue with Sarnoff and the city’s insistence that the new “Miami 21” development rules gave Astor a right to build the garage without a public hearing.
“I’m a developer by trade ... and I will tell you there is nothing in Miami 21 that gives the right to build this building,” Sessions said. “What it says in commercial districts, the uses that are not permitted are crystal clear — government vehicle maintenance facilities. How the city let this go through ... is beyond me. ... I’m offended by it. It sure wouldn’t be next to Mayfair.”
The Village Council is an elected board but it has little real power beyond the ability to advocate. The Grove is a part of the city of Miami.
Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen also was at the meeting, and assured residents that his city expects a garage that complies with all applicable regulations.
“We view this as a very important matter,” Leen said. “Ultimately, we have a contract with Astor. Under the contract, they have to deliver a building that meets all laws and regulations. We have seen your lawsuit and we are concerned about it. If the building doesn’t meet the regulations, we will not accept it.
“At some point we will have to decide whether this is a legal building or not. I have spoken with the commissioners and the city manager, and the city is very concerned. We did not want to force anything on the community.”