In Miami’s lushly verdant north Coconut Grove, on a winding street that’s hardly more than a lane, Bob Easterling lives in a 65-year-old house shrouded in trees.
His home’s neighbors on Opechee Drive are a picturesquely disparate lot. Stucco cottages from the 1920s and concrete bungalows from the ‘30s dwell harmoniously with some later additions under a dense canopy of oaks and palms, endowing the street with a fairy-tale quality that’s quintessentially Coconut Grove.
Until, that is, what one longtime Grove figure has dubbed the Attack of the White Boxes began. A large alien structure landed in their midst, helping trigger a revolt by residents the likes of which even the famously tree-hugging Grove has rarely seen before.
The invader on Opechee is a starkly contemporary, 5,600-square-foot cube, still under construction, that’s wedged nearly lot-line-to-lot-line between Easterling’s unassuming one-story house and a pretty1924 cottage that’s been home to Mary Ann Connors and her husband for 42 years. The new house’s most salient feature: a two-story glass-and-steel front that Easterling complains seems better suited to a Gap store on Lincoln Road Mall than a residential street in the Grove, Miami’s oldest section.
The real problem with the house, neighbors say, is not so much the architectural style, which some like, but the way it overwhelms its neighbors and occupies nearly its full 7,000-square-foot lot. That leaves little room for much else to grow — including the large canopy trees that define the Grove. Listing images from the developer, Aspect Custom Residential Builders, show not a single tree on the property — just a broad driveway and a bare fringe of lawn, as if the house sat on a one-acre estate lot in suburban Pinecrest and not in one of the city’s most luxuriant neighborhoods.
“I’m not against contemporary architecture. But when they they suck up the entire lot, that’s another matter,” Easterling said. “There’s no yard. There’s no privacy. There’s a pool the size of a tub. All of a sudden there are millions of these all over the Grove, and this is one of the worst.”
Driven by the rediscovery of the Grove by the affluent, rising land prices in the neighborhood and a raft of speculators angling to cash in, similarly minimalist concrete-and-glass boxes, most painted a blinding white, are replicating across the single-family residential neighborhoods of the north and south Grove.
Developers and real-estate agents say the clean, modern look, with its walls of clear glass and its unobstructed exposure to the street, is hugely popular with well-to-do foreign buyers and young couples who are happy to pay upwards of $2 million for a house in the Grove but don’t want to deal with yardwork. The developers say the houses they build are in compliance with zoning rules that apply in the Grove.
But activists, residents and city officials say some developers have taken advantage of gaps in enforcement and zoning rules to cram maxed-out homes into every lot they can buy and clear.
In the past two years, developers have bought up and torn down old homes by the dozen, including many of the quaint wood-frame and stucco houses that lend the Grove, established as a village two decades before Miami’s incorporation in 1896, its distinct architectural history and subtropical charm.
A review of city of Miami logs of demolition applications going back two years lists more than 45 in the south, north and central Grove. Often, one demolished home is replaced by two white boxes, sometimes more, when developers split up large lots — a controversial practice that Grove activists contend violates special city zoning rules meant to protect the neighborhood’s look and feel.
Residents and activists complain that some developers get away with stripping away trees, often in violation of strong tree protection ordinances, because the city’s tiny corps of tree inspectors is overwhelmed.
The result, they say: the Grove’s jungle-like ambience is being gradually and conspicuously denuded, and replaced with manicured front yards covered in concrete, pavers or gravel that won’t ever allow for the thickets of near-wild growth that give the place its renown — and screen off many a past architectural mistake.
“What they’re doing is hollowing out parts of the Grove, lot by lot,” said David Villano, a longtime north Grove resident. “One of these things is fine, two is fine. But at some point the Grove won’t be the Grove anymore.
“They’re parasites. They’re sucking the life out of what makes the Grove special. And they’re profiting from what they’re destroying.”
The piecemeal deforestation is even becoming apparent on Google Earth. At a workshop earlier this year led by activists looking to replenish the Grove’s canopy, one participant compared satellite images of the area from today and from just a few years ago, before the housing-market recovery led to the white-box vogue. The newer image clearly showed less green cover and more exposed rooftops.
In response, aggrieved Grove residents have organized a counter-offensive that may surpass in reach and intensity the battle against McMansions in the neighborhood 15 years ago. On St. Gaudens Road, residents banded together when developer Eduardo Goudie bought a near-pristine villa by renown architect Richard Kiehnel and applied for a demolition permit. The residents won historic designation for the house from the city.
At least two other neighborhood watchdog groups have sprung up to challenge developers and the city, digging into the history of properties targeted for new homes and the legality of approvals. The groups, Grove Watch and the South Grove Neighborhood Association, uncovered erroneous approvals by city officials and stratagems by developers to exploit regulatory loopholes. The groups have managed to block, at least for now, a handful of what they regard as the most egregious examples of inappropriate redevelopment.
Residents’ pressure has at times caused some developers to change course. When Goudie bought a large property on Braganza Avenue with an eye to dividing it, dozens of neighbors showed up at a planning board hearing to object. Goudie agreed to a covenant that allows him to build just one house on the property.
An umbrella organization, Grove 2030, co-founded by Villano, has meanwhile attracted hundreds of people to workshop meetings to devise strategies for protecting its neighborhoods and restoring its diminished green canopy. A Grove 2030 committee has been working for months with planning officials and city commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the Grove, on tightening zoning rules to rein in the white boxes. Russell says he plans to unveil proposed revisions for the Grove after the commission’s August break.
The commissioner also wants to overhaul rules for the historically black and mostly low-income West Grove, where a very different dynamic — rampant gentrification — has also led to a rash of home demolitions.
Earlier this year, Russell won commission approval for tweaks to the city’s tree ordinance to better protect old trees and beef up provisions for fines. Before, he said, developers got away with relatively small penalties or could wiggle out of citations for flouting the rules because of vagueness in the ordinance language. Now they can face as much as $100,000 in firm penalties for doing so, Russell said. He also wants to allow the city administration to hire consultants to supplement its three-person team of tree inspectors.
Russell next hopes to win commission approval for a rewrite of Grove zoning rules to limit the footprint and massing of new homes, require more greenery and strengthen the rights of neighbors.
“The code hasn’t changed for a very long time, but the problem is relatively new,” said Russell, a Grove resident. “Nobody would have built a property out to all the maximums before, because the end product would not have been marketable. People didn’t want a cube. Little by little, developers have pushed the envelope at a time when that is marketable.
“The developers realized that, from a profit perspective, there is no value on paper for a house to have trees. The speculative developer is not thinking about quality of life, but marketability and cost per square foot. But we as residents want to preserve some more of that Grove character, and we are willing to have some restrictions,” Russell said.
At the center of the zoning issue is a special code, known as Neighborhood Conservation District 3, that’s meant to protect Coconut Grove’s canopy and character by making it hard to up residential density and height in single-family areas or thin out trees. A principal element is a rule that bars dividing up large home sites consisting of a single house on more than one platted lot if the results are incongruent with the scale of homes and lots nearby. It also prohibits similar house designs on adjacent lots.
At the same time, though, the underlying Miami 21 zoning code allows for large, box-like, two-story homes and significant lot coverage — much more so than neighboring Coral Gables, known for its strict controls.
The NCD rules also allow a 25-percent reduction in required green space if permeable or semi-permeable materials, such as pavers or gravel, are used in the yard.
“It’s a joke,” Villano said. “Green space can be a rock garden or a carport.”
And developers with little regard for the Grove take full advantage, say critics like Javier Gonzalez, a real estate agent and vice-chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council, an elected city advisory body.
Many of the white boxes, with some notable exceptions, are poorly designed and cheaply built but satisfy zoning rules, Gonzalez and some Grove developers say. Because the new homes consist of stacked, square blocks, they are quick and inexpensive to put up, said longtime Grove affordable-housing developer Andy Parrish, who coined the “Attack of the White Boxes” meme.
“The out-of-town developers are not truly appreciate of what the Grove’s character is. They look at it as how much house can they get in,” Parrish said. “I call it houses by the pound.”
Even some developers of modern new homes in the Grove say they can’t abide what some of their competitors build. But they say the builders aren’t fully to blame.
Marcelo Fernandes, who is helping Grove 2030 draft proposed revisions to the NCD code, said the city has made it difficult for him to build creatively, which typically requires hiring attorneys to get waivers from what described as a rigid Miami 21 code.
“So no one does it,” said Fernandes, adding that he has spent tens of thousands of dollars to win approvals for out-of-the-box homes that better fit into the Grove. “Buyers want three dens and the maid’s room and the walk-in closet. The dumb way to do it is make it big, make it boxy, take out the trees. There is no incentive to do anything else.”
The better alternative, Fernandes, Parrish and Gonzalez say: limit home sizes in the Grove and craft flexible rules that will encourage good designs, regardless of style.
“The NCD and Miami 21 force developers to build a certain way,” Gonzalez said. “So change it. Then you will not get these cheap builders building crap.”
Grove 2030 is backing an ambitious slate of reforms.
In addition to size restrictions based on lot sizes, Grove 2030 has proposed NCD revisions aimed at boosting the tree canopy by 25 percent, mostly by increasing the mimimum amount of green space and requiring that it include trees.
Villano and others are also calling for a citizen’s committee that would develop design guidelines and vet new homes to ensure they harmonize with the Grove, though he stresses it should not dictate architectural style.
Russell and Grove 2030 also want every house older than 50 years reviewed by the city historic preservation office when a demolition permit is aplied for, as Coral Gables does. Despite the Grove’s age and stock of vintage homes, relatively few houses are designated historic by the city. That means a simple demolition application is all a developer needs to tear them down.
But critics like Villano say the city also has been lax in enforcing existing NCD 3 rules, including the ban on duplicative house designs.
John Snyder, a retired University of Miami professor of forensic accounting and president of the South Grove neighborhood group, has documented half a dozen instances in which developers looking to split up large single-home sites consisting of multiple plats made an end run around required zoning officials. They did so by applying for new folio numbers and addresses from Miami-Dade County, then using those to apply directly for building permits from the city, Snyder found. That meant their plans, which otherwise conformed to zoning rules, bypassed the extra layer of reviews that might have blocked the splits or given neighbors a chance to appeal.
City zoning administrator Devin Cejas and planning director Francisco Garcia acknowledged they have cracked down only after initially failing to catch the run-around. But they said they could not stop homes already under construction.
Garcia’s department has since also denied at least two applications to divide up home sites. Developers appealed both denials, but the city planning board upheld the city decision in one case on Wednesday.
That case involves a developer who bought and demolished a wood-frame Colonial home that was long a landmark on a prominent and expansive wooded lot fronting on Hibiscus Street, next to historic Plymouth Congregational Church. The project has been dubbed “The Three Avocados” by neighbors because the developer sought to divide the property into three home sites, with new addresses on abutting Avocado Avenue.
The planning department denied the application after concluding the resulting lots would be markedly smaller than those around the property, improperly increasing the neighborhood’s density, and the houses too similar to one another. In an appeal on behalf of developer Avocado Property Development, attorney Maria Gralia challenged the design conclusions as vague and argued the city “mischaracterized” the neighborhood’s predominant lot size.
Dave Treitel, a corporate executive who has lived on an estate behind the Three Avocados since 2010, collected 225 signatures from Grove residents urging the city to disallow the break-up of the lot. The developers, he said, could still build a very large house, save most of trees and “make a tidy profit” without affecting the neighborhood.
“People bought in the neighborhood with the expectation that that lot was going to have one home on it.You have a wooded part of Miami that’s probably unique for America. The Grove has character that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Treitel said. “That was the reason for the creation of the zoning code that exists in the first place.”
The most high-profile win for residents came last year, when Russell persuaded fellow commissioners to stop work by luxury-home builders who had divided a one-acre south Grove estate with a single house on it into five home sites (two additional home sites on the property fell across the city line in Coral Gables).
Developer Palmcorp has sued the city, arguing the commission improperly blocked the Battersea Woods in response to public pressure. The developers, stopped with two houses half-built, insist they did everything by the book and say their house lots would be larger than most in the neighorhood and filled with trees and landscaping.
“The application of the code has been hijacked by a special interest group, by this group of neighbors who are very active and very vocal,” said Palmcorp manager Carlos Tosca. “What happened is very unfair. Why should we need permission from the neighbors if we’re doing everything according to code?”
But neighbor Johanna Brown, a Grove Watch co-founder and a leader in the campaign against Battersea Woods, said the development would drastically alter a large, prominently positioned property that was unchanged for decades.
“You’re taking a property that had one house and mango trees and oaks, and now we will be staring at seven brand new homes, which is kind of a bummer if you moved to the Grove to be in the middle of this wild, lush, unique kind of neighborhood,” she said.
Back in the north Grove, Easterling say’s he’s resigned to living with his new neighbor, though he says he can see all the way through its glass walls. He does hope the house’s future occupants have a minimal sense of decency.
“What am I going to do?” he said with a shrug and rueful laugh. “I hope they put up curtains.”