March 20, 2013

Major Coconut Grove redevelopment site back on the market

The redevelopment project was to include a supermarket and other shops, plus 257 homes and apartments.

There’s a sign trouble may be brewing in the West Grove’s $306 million redevelopment project that for five years has been promising to transform six square blocks in one of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods.

The sign, posted at the corner of Grand Avenue and Margaret Street, reads:

“BACK ON THE MARKET! Past group actually never bought this land. NOW IT’S YOUR CHANCE.”

The seller is Phillip Muskat, who started buying land on Grand Avenue, west of the Center Grove, about 14 years ago. Eventually he teamed up with Julio C. Marrero and Orlando Benitez, and assembled almost all the lots on both sides of Grand Avenue between Margaret and Plaza streets. The team then cut a deal to sell the land to developer Peter Gardner for the ambitious Grove Village project, which would include a supermarket and other shops as well as 257 homes and apartments.

But now Muskat says his group has run out of patience with Gardner and is looking for a new buyer.

“My group got tired of waiting,” Muskat said. “The market’s picked up and we’re like ‘Peter, are you going to buy my land?’ There’s other people. We have these buildings. Do we improve them? Do we knock them down?”

The trio of property owners struck a deal with Gardner to sell him the property after their own plans to erect mixed-use condominiums as high as 12-stories were rejected in 2005. That agreement expired more than three years ago, and Gardner has failed to renew it, Muskat said.

“But the rest of world doesn’t know this because he continues forward,” Muskat said.

Muskat said he and his partners are asking $30 million for the land.

Lucia Dougherty, an attorney representing Gardner, said he has every intention of completing the project, but has been stymied by a county moratorium on sewer hookups in the Grove. The moratorium was imposed by the county in August, when the local sewer pump reached capacity. In October, Gardner told The Miami Herald he was working with city and county leaders to work out the problem.

“My client understands the frustration and shares it. But the reality is, right now, Coconut Grove is in a water moratorium, so you can’t pull a permit, so you can’t get financing,” Dougherty said. “We’re in the same boat they are and we share their frustration.”

Until Gardner’s Pointe Group came along, Grand Avenue in the West Grove had been plagued by years of decline and stalled redevelopment schemes. It was once the main street for the Grove’s original Bahamian settlers, with a vibrant collection of shops and businesses. But over the years, the population dwindled and crime increased. Redevelopment plans floundered. Either they were too big and ill-suited for the low-key stretch between Dixie Highway and MacDonald Street, or residents feared rising rental rates and home prices would displace them.

But Gardner, who grew up in Coconut Grove, won city approval in 2011 by promising to set aside 40 houses and apartments for affordable housing. The city permit covers not only the land that Muskat and his partners own fronting Grand Avenue but also the lots behind those properties, some of which Gardner and his partners have purchased.

“Peter’s a nice guy. He’s married with kids. If you met him, you’d like him ,” Muskat said.

Gardner also vowed to anchor the project with a supermarket at the site of a weekly farmer’s market, where the troubling sign now sits. Without the supermarket, Gardner would lose the special use permit he received from the city as part of a deal he struck with residents, explained Jihad Rashid, president and CEO of the Coconut Grove Collaborative.

The project was expected to start at the eastern end and progress in phases. But Muskat said his group is tired of excuses.

“So the latest excuse by Peter is, ‘I can’t start to build because there’s no guarantee I can rent because of the sewer issues.’ So that’s somewhat legitimate, but supposedly (the county) was going to (repair it) in a year and if Peter started building, he’d be done in a year and a half. And the (contract) expired before the sewer issue,” Muskat said.

But Dougherty said the sewer issue has made financing trickier.

“All these things are moving in tandem,” she said. “You need a lot of money to get construction financing and no one gives it to you if they know at the end of the design, there’s no way to hook up.”

And if another buyer comes along in the mean time?

“I’m not worried,” she said, “because anybody who buys that is going to have the same problem.”

Regardless, Muskat said the neighborhood deserves to have the issue resolved.

“The only reason the signs are back up is because I can’t get a commitment,” he said. “I’m a native. I would like it if we could build a nice project there. Whether he does it or someone else, I would like to see a nice project there.”

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