The Coral Gables City Commission could soon decide the fate of a proposed building that is a lynchpin in a potential settlement of a dispute over a city trolley garage built in a historic black neighborhood in Coconut Grove.
Attorneys for the city and the trolley company, Astor Trolley, LLC, have been working through the details of the settlement that would have developer Henry Torres, president of Astor Trolley’s parent company, build a trolley depot underneath high-rise condominiums near the Village of Merrick Park on Le Jeune Road.
Astor and the city are trying to resolve one of a series of disputes that arose after Astor started building a new trolley garage in the Grove for use by the Gables to replace an old garage on the company’s condo development site. The Grove is a part of Miami, which never held a public hearing for the trolley garage. And when neighbors saw the garage rising beside their homes, it sparked a number of disputes and a federal civil rights investigation, since the trolleys are partly funded with federal money.
Among the disputes: The city of Coral Gables had sued Astor in connection with the nearly finished garage on the 3300 block of Douglas Road in the West Grove. Neighbors also are suing the city of Miami over the matter. Many residents are descendants of Bahamians who built the surrounding areas, including Coral Gables.
City Attorney Craig Leen told the commission Tuesday that the court suspended the lawsuit for 60 days starting on May 31 to give them time to settle. He will start the process of finalizing settlement documents this week.
Now, the commission will be making two major decisions at its July 22 meeting, about one week before the suspensions ends.
First, the commission will vote on the settlement. Second, a public hearing will be held where the plans for the building will be presented and anyone can testify for or against the deal. At the end, the commission can approve the plans as presented, clearing the way for permitting and construction. The city would never use the facility built in the West Grove.
Or the commission can impose more conditions on the plans, which Astor can either accept or reject, or the commission can outright reject the project. In that case, the case would go back to court.
Clarice Cooper, who lives across from the garage and filed the Federal Transit Administration complaint that led to the civil rights investigation, said Tuesday she was “ecstatic” to hear that Coral Gables may never use the trolley depot.
She added the current proposal should have happened years ago, before any lawsuits or uproar.
“That should have been on the table before,” she said.
Leen said the he’s trying to avoid more litigation, which if lost, could force the Gables to use the West Grove depot and could lead to years of civil rights lawsuits.
“It will resolve a very difficult civil rights matter where hopefully all stakeholders will be happy,” he said.
The proposed arrangement compresses the timeline for which developments get approved, particularly in a city with strict aesthetic requirements like Coral Gables.
Commissioner Patricia Keon said the commission should recognize that should it approve the plans, it would be giving the final stamp of approval before permitting and construction.
She emphasized that building’s look should be considered as plans are hastily prepared and the commission weighs its decision.
“I want to do it with the most attractive building,” she said.
Both attorneys could ask the court for another extension to iron out details of the building’s design, but everyone agreed Tuesday a hearing needs to happen in July to discuss the settlement.
“We have to discuss this at the next meeting,” said Commissioner Frank Quesada. “There’s no way around it.”
Mario Garcia-Serra, an attorney for Astor, said his client will work with city staff to prepare plans quickly in advance of the July meeting.