Just a few days ago, the West Grove community had dreams of turning an abandoned trolley garage that a few years ago sparked a civil rights dispute into a facility everyone could get behind.
They had hoped the building, originally built to service Coral Gables’ trolleys, could be converted into a museum or a cultural arts center. Some had visions of shops or offices to help reinvigorate the struggling, historically black community.
None of these visions will take hold.
On Tuesday, the property owner, Astor Companies, said it sold the 21,659-square foot trolley garage, 3320 Douglas Road, to a private buyer for $3,295,000, rebuffing the city of Miami’s offer of $3,060,000. Earlier this month, the Miami City Commission approved for the city to buy the building and convert it to a new use, although the city and Astor had not signed a contract.
The company did not disclose the name of the buyer but said the venue will be used by a new owner as a space for art work, and perhaps education.
“I think it's a benefit to the neighborhood,” said Henry Torres, president of Astor Companies. “It's better than the trolley they were going to get… It might benefit some of the kids.”
Though Torres insisted the facility will be positive for the community, the news comes as a blow to residents and city leaders, who say they received no forewarning of the final sale. Officials also said they had no knowledge of who the buyer was or what the building would be used for until they saw a Miami Herald reporter’s tweets.
Before Monday, when Torres said the sale closed, city officials had lined up a letter of intent with Astor, and commissioners voted earlier this month to allocate funds. They even met with the community to brainstorm a purpose for the space.
“News found out before we did, which is even more disappointing,” said City Manager Daniel Alfonso. “It was very unprofessional in that sense.”
District 2 commissioner Ken Russell, who represents Coconut Grove, said he, too, was blindsided.
“The seller never had a problem with the price, or the terms,” Russell said. “... [This] implies to me that he never intended to sell to us.”
Torres, when called about Russell’s comments, declined to discuss the matter on Wednesday.
In an earlier interview, he said he didn’t accept the city’s offer because the city wanted to put into the contract a clause saying the developer would be financially responsible if a problem cropped up after the city bought the building, though he wouldn’t discuss the specific issue.
“It was just an indemnity they wanted us to give them that I wasn't willing to do,” he said. “I appreciate them making the offer and going through the steps.”
To some, the sale puts a sour ending to a saga that began three years ago when West Grove residents learned the city of Coral Gables had cut a deal with Astor to build luxury condos on the site where the trolley garage previously sat, off Le Jeune Road near Merrick Park. In order for Astor to acquire the Le Jeune Road property, the company had to agree to build a new trolley garage.
But Astor didn’t build the trolley garage in Coral Gables. Instead, in a land swap, it built it in the West Grove. Torres is adamant that he was open with the surrounding community, but his project angered residents who sued the city of Miami, arguing they had not received proper notice before construction began.
Meanwhile, Clarice Cooper, who lives across the street from the garage, worked with the University of Miami law school and sued the county and cities of Miami and Coral Gables, contending the project violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under that landmark legislation, federal funds — used by both the cities of Miami and Coral Gables to finance their trolley systems — could not be used for transportation projects in minority neighborhoods without sufficiently consulting with neighbors.
Federal officials sided with Cooper, and trolley garage in the West Grove has sat empty ever since.
“Our intention was to give this back to the neighborhood,’’ said Russell, the commissioner. “I’m very disappointed in the seller. I think this is his last kick in the teeth to the neighborhood.”
Anthony Alfieri, the University of Miami law professor whose Center for Ethics & Public Service helped recruit a team of attorneys to represent the residents for free, said the neighbors must have a say in the building’s purpose.
“It’s crucially important for the community to be able to participate in the process that determines the use of that space. It would be a kind of democratic tragedy if the community were deprived of the opportunity to participate in that decision-making.’’
Reynold Martin, a Miami resident who was raised in the neighborhood, said he hopes the buyers will at least accept community input.
“It looked like we were going to have a say there, and now that’s not going to happen," Martin said. “Not to say that what’s going in there is not going to be beneficial in the community, but the truth of the matter is that we have no idea.”