The rush to build a trolley garage in West Coconut Grove drew a stinging rebuke last week from the U.S. Department of Transportation that calls into question the competence and judgment of just about everyone at the local level involved in this embarrassing debacle.
DOT acted after local officials failed to take into account the harmful impact that the decision to build a trolley garage in a historically black neighborhood would have on the residents, an apparent violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This amounts to a failure of due diligence that could have profound consequences elsewhere in the county because it may not be an isolated instance.
A series of mistakes led up to the federal government’s intervention, including a failure to heed warnings that the site did not meet zoning standards. But the initial error from which everything else flows was the failure to get a buy-in from the residents of one of Miami’s oldest, historically black neighborhoods.
The essential facts are not in dispute. Astor Development brokered a deal with Coral Gables to build the city a new garage in exchange for land where the garage now stands within the City Beautiful. Common sense would suggest that a new site could be found in Coral Gables, where the trolleys operate, but nothing about what followed seems logical.
The developer found land in the West Grove, a residential neighborhood in Miami, not Coral Gables. This convenient solution satisfied Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and all the parties — except the people in the affected area! They would be obliged to suffer the consequences of “environmental concerns, unsafe streets, excessive noise, increase in traffic, potential health concerns and possible reduction in property values,” the federal government noted.
No matter. The city of Miami threw the residents under the bus instead of protecting them. The required notification was limited to an online posting, where it was likely to go unnoticed. Other than that, the federal government noted, the city failed to solicit community input or otherwise evaluate the impact of the site selection.
Enter the federal government, which was involved in the deal because it provided transportation grants to Miami-Dade County that were used to buy the trolley cars. The online posting was not enough to satisfy the requirements of the 1964 CRA, whose Title VI mandates genuine outreach to the community and what federal rules call an “equity analysis,” including the possibility of finding alternative sites or taking actions to mitigate harm to residents.
Most appalling, the letter from DOT noted that “none of the relevant city (of Miami) staff appeared to be aware of their Title VI obligations and Miami has no Title VI compliance program in effect.” It boggles the mind that the city’s staffers, presumably including its attorneys, were clueless about the city’s obligations under the Civil Rights Act, and it raises a troubling question: Are other federally funded projects here now in jeopardy?
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The county, which is supposed to enforce the rules, says it does not believe other projects are in trouble. The developer and the city of Coral Gables are pointing fingers at each other and the city is suing the developer. And officials in Miami are ducking questions.
No doubt, some effort will be forthcoming to salvage the project, because the garage is nearly finished. But by this point it should be evident that any attempt to keep the trolley depot in the West Grove over the objections of its residents won’t succeed. Been there, done that — and it didn’t work.