Along Grand Avenue in the West Grove, between Dixie Highway and McDonald Street, some of the most contentiously coveted land in Miami is up for grabs.
For-sale signs dot derelict buildings and lots. Some signs are old and weatherworn; others, bright and unblemished.
It is here that some of the state’s first black settlers, Bahamian natives, put down roots in the 1880s, many to take service jobs at the old Peacock Inn, the first mainland hotel in Florida south of Palm Beach.
They persevered, staking a claim to a neighborhood that, while strategically placed, has been plagued in recent years by crime, drugs and decay. Straddling two of South Florida’s most affluent communities — Coral Gables and Coconut Grove — the West Grove has been the subject of innumerable development schemes: high-rise condos, outdoor markets, shops, restaurants, even a Bahamian business district.
One by one, over 30 years, they flickered and died. But in South Florida, the development dream is never really dead.
“How can it still be that a corner of one of the busiest streets in the city, where the number of Mercedes that go by every day is in the hundreds, if not thousands, is still abandoned after 52 years? How is that possible?” asked Andy Parrish, founder and president of Wind & Rain Homebuilders, who is selling his lot on Grand and Douglas Road.
He has taken to calling the West Grove “the land that time forgot, because nothing ever seems to change.”
One thing did change, and it infuriated residents. This past Christmas, workers tore down some houses and Bernice’s Soul Food restaurant to start building a garage for trolleys. The trolleys serve Coral Gables, not the West Grove.
The garage fueled old resentments that the community, where remnants of an old segregation wall between Main Highway and LeJeune Road still stand, was again being used as a dumping ground. Anger was directed at Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who supported the project. (He said city zoning allowed it.) Sarnoff did persuade Astor Development, the builder, to donate $200,000 to improve West Grove’s Armbrister Park.
The garage incursion rallied the troops. Neighbors, with the help of the University of Miami, filed a lawsuit against Miami to stop the trolley proposal. They staged protests. One group, determined to pull in a member from every faction, has been meeting regularly.
“Sometimes we are portrayed or characterized as being opposed to development,” said Jihad Rashid, president and CEO of the Coconut Grove Collaborative, which has been trying to redevelop Grand Avenue for two decades. “We’re not opposed. We’ve been here 20 years looking for development and we want it, but we don’t want to be washed out by it.”
A possible catalyst
Some have pinned their hopes on a proposed six-square block plan of businesses and homes at the east end of Grand. It is known as the Pointe Group project. But the property owners say Pointe Group has not yet purchased the land and they are seeking new buyers.
Pointe Group President Peter Gardner said Friday the city’s moratorium on sewer hookups last August temporarily derailed the project because he couldn’t get financing.
“It’s like having handcuffs. We can’t do anything moving forward, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still working hard to figure out a solution,” Gardner said.