Needing yet another big parking garage for his ever-expanding Miami Design District mega-revamp, developer Craig Robins found just the spot for it — mostly vacant land across North Miami Avenue on the edge of a tidy working-class neighborhood called Buena Vista Heights.
That’s when the problems started. Now, a year and a half after first floating the plan, Robins’ group is struggling to win city approval for the garage, which has bitterly split neighborhood residents, earned a thumbs-down from Miami’s planning board and prompted complaints from anti-garage activists of unseemly pressure tactics by the well-regarded developer.
It’s an unusual position for Robins to find himself in. The developer, who is in the midst of a half-billion-dollar transformation of the dowdy old Design District into an urban, ultra-luxury shopping area, prides himself on the sensitivity of his projects to their surroundings and his willingness to address neighbors’ concerns over their impact.
But in venturing across Miami Avenue from his Design District base, Robins’ proposal is raising questions over potential gentrification and the introduction of large-scale commercial development into what’s long been a low-income but stable, quiet neighborhood of mostly single-family homes and a racially and ethnically diverse population. Some residents argue that the garage plan, which would require rezoning several lots now meant for single-family homes, never would have been proposed in a higher-income neighborhood.
“You already have this billion-dollar strip mall across the street,” said John Thompson III, a union rep who grew up in the neighborhood and lives several blocks from the proposed garage with his 95-year-old grandmother. “To put a garage in the middle of the neighborhood, that’s more traffic, more noise. It’s going to change the neighborhood. But it’s like they just decided this is what they’re going to do. Why here?”
Robins contends that garage opponents represent only a small minority of neighborhood property owners. Although he acknowledges initially broad resistance to the garage, he said most people came around after he worked with the neighborhood’s two resident groups over months and attended numerous well-attended public meetings to allay concerns and win their endorsement.
Robins agreed to two separate deals with the Buena Vista Heights Neighborhood Association and Buena Vista Stakeholders Corp. that would give residents a voice in the garage design and in selecting commercial ground-floor tenants, which would be oriented to neighborhood services. Store rents would be below market rates, and Robins would pay for private security to patrol not just the garage but neighborhood streets, among other benefits that he says would outweigh its impact. Leaders of both groups initially strongly opposed to the garage, then signed covenants in support.
“It’s legitimate to debate this, but if you look at the totality of the deal, there are a lot of compelling benefits for the neighborhood,” Robins said. “The vast majority of people felt it was a very good trade.”
In any case, he added, current zoning rules, which permit commercial development of up to three stories directly on North Miami Avenue, already allow a garage, though it would be a shallower, smaller and less efficient structure without the residential lots he wants rezoned.
But some abutting homeowners complain they would be facing a garage wall, no matter how well designed, where zoning rules now call for compatible detached homes. Some opponents note that the city’s revamped Miami 21 zoning code was specifically drawn up to ban such jarring juxtapositions.
“We have peace and quiet now,” said Kirk Munguia, who with his elderly parents owns two homes next to the proposed garage site. The elder Munguias have lived there for 40 years. “There is no excuse for them to build that garage here. Imagine a big wall just outside your window. It’s not just the impact on our property values. There would be noise and lights and fumes. We can’t accept that.”
The plan is scheduled for a vote before the Miami City Commission on Thursday, but Robins has asked for a deferral. The commission had already put off a vote last month after opponents successfully sought to intervene as a legal party under a little-used section of the zoning code. That means Munguia will present evidence and cross-examine witnesses during the quasi-judicial hearing once the commission takes up the matter.
Munguia and his parents are part of a group of residents who have organized to fight the garage, contending their neighborhood representatives sold them out in signing the covenants with Robins. One opposition leader, artist and filmmaker Susan Karrie Braun, made a video in which 24 neighborhood residents object to the garage and posted it on Vimeo.
The opponents claim the developers and their attorneys followed a strategy of delay, asking for planning hearings to be deferred time and again to the point that even board members complained, then played residents against one another while attempting to discredit some opposition leaders.
Among the flashpoints: the fact that leaders of the Buena Vista Heights association settled in part after Robins agreed to conduct a toy drive and distribute free Thanksgiving turkeys in the community, among more-substantial benefits. After that, the opponents contend, the association vice president deep-sixed an anti-garage petition with some 200 residents’ signatures that she was supposed to submit to the city.
“She used them as leverage to negotiate for toys and turkeys, which is funny but not funny,” said Braun, a longtime Buena Vista Heights resident whose bungalow home sits across Northwest 44th Street from the garage site.
Braun, a former board member of the Buena Vista stakeholders group, and other garage critics also contend that the neighborhood groups’ leaders did not conduct formal votes before signing the covenants, as they should have. Braun said she was asked to resign from the board by its president, Lorena Ramos, after objecting.
Another garage opponent, Rosa Ramos, a neighborhood resident for 50 years, said she quit that same board in disagreement with Lorena Ramos’ decision to support the plan (they are not related).
Kemp, the association president, did not return a phone call and email requesting an interview. Lorena Ramos acknowledged that she did not hold a formal vote, but only because she regarded one as unnecessary. Some of the group’s seven public meetings, especially at first, “deteriorated into fights” and no vote was possible, she said. But eventually, “an overwhelming majority” of attendees accepted the garage plan and the covenant, she said.
“I myself was very, very skeptical at the beginning. I was insulted and offended that this was the best Craig Robins could do on our side of the neighborhood,” Lorena Ramos said.
She concedes that the garage would have an impact on the neighborhood. But what finally persuaded her and others to support Robins, Ramos said, is that the garage and the proffered security personnel would help the neighborhood cope with an “overflow” of cars already coming from the Design District in search of street parking — even though residential decals are required.
Ramos said that she, too, has felt the strain of the garage fight, weeping briefly as she described her reaction to being criticized in the Vimeo video.
Speculators are already buying homes in the neighborhood, and redevelopment is creeping closer across North Miami Avenue, she said. She said the garage plan, with its promise of neighborhood retail and job opportunities, offers residents a chance to participate in its benefits.
“I’m really afraid for our neighborhood,” Ramos said. “Gentrification has already occurred. That’s why we need this garage.”