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Miami city staffer said 2 years ago that Grove trolley garage illegal

When a former city of Miami planner warned more than two years ago that a controversial trolley garage was not allowed under the city’s new Miami 21 zoning code and should be stopped, the city’s solution was simple.

Keep the plans. But change the description.

The garage, which has angered neighbors in west Coconut Grove and triggered two lawsuits, is being constructed in the 3300 block of Douglas Road by developer Henry Torres to house the popular Coral Gables trolleys. Coral Gables agreed to swap land where the garage now sits on Le Jeune Road so Torres can build a 10-story luxury mixed-use condominium project there.

In a May 2011 email written 13 days after a Greenberg Traurig attorney representing Torres submitted an application, former city of Miami Project Manager Dakota Hendon wrote to his boss, City Planner Francisco Garcia:

“The Coral Gables Trolley Station that I met with you and the applicant on a few weeks ago appears to not be an allowable use as we had originally anticipated. ... I believe this is specifically an industrial use. At this point ... action needs to be taken to stop the application.”

Hendon, who now works as an urban designer for the New York City Department of City Planning and did not respond to phone or email messages, went on to point out that the city’s Internal Design Review team was “adamantly against the project in the specific location.”

But in the ensuing weeks, plans for the garage moved forward. A public notice mailed to residents on May 16, 2011, that described a new municipal trolley building “for the storage and maintenance of trolley cars,” was revised and mailed again on July 21, 2011. The new notice dropped maintenance from the description, saying the building would be used only for parking and storage. Yet plans were revised in May 2012 to include a hydraulic lift requested by Coral Gables and needed to allow it to replace brake pads, change belts, hoses and batteries and perform oil changes, wrote Torres’ attorney, Mario Garcia-Serra.

At the heart of the dispute, detailed in lawsuits filed by residents and the City of Coral Gables, is whether the garage is a commercial auto-related use allowed under the code, or an industrial, government-operated maintenance facility, which is not allowed.

Resident Clarice Cooper, who grew up in Coconut Grove and has lived across from the garage site since 1981, also filed a civil rights complaint in April with the U.S. Department of Transportation. She contends that building the garage in the historic black neighborhood will create excessive noise, make streets unsafe and pose environmental concerns.

“I don’t care how they try to paint it. It’s still a trolley garage,” she said.

Coral Gables also stated in its lawsuit earlier this month that it believes the garage is an industrial maintenance garage and therefore prohibited. The city has asked a judge to decide the matter, arguing that if indeed it is an industrial government garage, it violates the city’s contract with Torres, freeing the city to walk away from the deal.

“The city obviously finds the email very concerning as the city contracted for a properly zoned building, not an improperly zoned building,” said Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen. “We’re happy it came to light because we want the correct outcome here.”

Torres’ attorneys declined to address the emails.

“We are not going to litigate this matter in the press,” attorney Alan Dimond said in a statement. “The Astor Companies has maintained from the beginning that the Grove trolley building was designed and constructed in adherence with the City of Miami Zoning Code — having received all necessary permits to develop the building.”

The email surfaced as part of a public records request from University of Miami law students working on the school’s Environmental Justice Project. Along with Hendon’s email, the school obtained a series of exchanges in which Garcia asks Jose Camaro, director of Miami’s General Services Administration, to determine whether Coral Gables’ plans to perform “light maintenance” raised any concerns. Camaro responded that plans to work on brakes, change oil and filters as well as service air conditioners were indeed a concern and are not considered “incidental” maintenance.

When asked about the emails, Garcia explained that modifications were made to the plans “which ultimately brought it into compliance with the applicable regulations.”

Those modifications require the garage to be completely enclosed and air-conditioned to contain noise, fumes and odors.

“We understand that the construct of our zoning code may not be entirely intuitive, thus creating some confusion between two uses that bear some similarities,” Garcia continued. “At the same time we stand squarely by our position that the facility as permitted is ‘commercial’ in nature and thus merits the ‘approval with conditions.’ ”

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