In Coconut Grove, where the wild foliage serves as one of the more obvious signs of its bohemian spirit, chopping down a tree is a serious matter.
So late last month, when landscapers for developer Gino Falsetto cut down four towering trees on Charles Avenue near the old E.W.F. Stirrup House, phones started ringing and blogs lit up. For some, it was an ominous sign.
“I was with a friend yesterday and she said, ‘I saw it happening and I started taking pictures because I couldn’t reach anyone,” said Tom Falco, whose Coconut Grove Grapevine blog serves as a modern town crier for Miami’s oldest village and who started receiving emails as word spread.
The homestead, built in the late 19th century by the black Bahamian patriarch Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, who ranked among Miami’s largest land owners when he died in 1957, was designated as a historic structure by the city in 2004. But it has since sat empty, outrage festering as it grows more derelict. So did cutting trees signal a threat to the house?
“There were some people up and arms about it,” said Coconut Grove Village Council member Linda Williams.
It turns out the trees were marked for removal in a landscaping plan submitted to the city by Falsetto. But permits had not yet been issued. So the city cited his company, the Aries Group, and fined him $1,000 for each tree. They also ordered him to replant two trees for every tree removed, said Javier Gonzalez, chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council.
“The big trees, while they were old, they were not out of this world,” Gonzalez said. “I think there was a ficus on one side.”
The trees, Falsetto said, were either sick or invasive and not worth preserving.
“They just got cut down a little prematurely,” he said.
But the larger issue, the fate of the house, may be coming to a head. Falsetto said he is in the process of finalizing building permits with the city to convert the L-shaped, two-story house constructed of Dade County pine into a bed and breakfast. He also hired an arborist, he said, who surveyed the trees and came up with plans for a new garden.
“It’s going to be a beautiful little bed and breakfast and we’re doing a garden with a lot of planting,” he said. “It’s quite an elaborate plan.”
Falsetto has a 50-year lease on the property from the Stirrup family.When he first introduced the idea of turning the house into a bed and breakfast in 2011, neighbors objected, fearing the commercial venture would change the residential street. But under Miami 21, the land can be used for the bed and breakfast, Gonzalez said.
Falsetto also got caught up in complaints surrounding efforts to revive the nearby Coconut Grove playhouse. That playhouse, mired in debt, abruptly closed in 2006 and has failed to reopen despite a nonprofit board’s attempts to save it. In 2012, the state took control and, under rules that govern it, would have been required to sell it to the highest bidder. But in January, the county brokered a deal that would allow the county to rebuild the 1926 theater and operate it as an educational institution in partnership with Florida International University.
As part of the deal Falsetto, who claimed he was owed $1.5 million by the playhouse’s former board, was given control of a neighboring building called the bike shop.
All the deal-making and stalled plans left many wary of Falsetto’s efforts. And the sudden tree-chopping seemed to indicate something nefarious. But Williams said the city moved quickly to cite Falsetto. He was also recently cited for code violations at both the bike shop and the Stirrup House, Gonzalez said.
“I think it was done just purposely to get someone to do something, to get it going,” he said.
He said Falsetto has now pulled permits to add two bathrooms and work on outdoor space.
Falsetto believes his plans, which include work on a gazebo, doors, the driveway and windows, could be approved by the end of the week. Construction, he said, would take another six to eight months.
Work took longer, he said, because the house has a historic designation.
“It’s a little more time-consuming, more costly and it did take a little longer for the approval process. But we were not discouraged by it,” he said. “The truth of the matter is we’re trying to do the best we can to restore it and keep the Grove beautiful. I live next door and some people get the wrong impression and don’t do all their research and conclude wrongly. We’re spending a lot of money to get this old house rebuilt. It will be very beautiful.”
And Williams hope it will coincide with the reopening of the playhouse.
“You could come out of the playhouse after a nice play and begin to do a walking tour of Charles Avenue and just have a cup of tea on that porch and learn the history,” she said. “The more progress we make, the closer we get to our goal. So that whole corridor is going to be important to deal with.”