On Monday, Coral Gables will write the next chapter in the controversial tale of two trolley garages.
After months of negotiations, city officials believe they have a settlement that will end months of fighting over a trolley garage built in Coconut Grove to maintain trolleys used in Coral Gables. The proposal, which has the city looking for a new spot to build an estimated $5 million depot, will go before the city commission during its 9 a.m. meeting Monday at city hall, 405 Biltmore Way.
The issues began on the 3300 block of Douglas Road in the western section of Coconut Grove. There, surrounded by an old neighborhood populated by many descendants of the black Bahamian workers who built many parts of the Grove and Coral Gables, a structure meant to house the Gables’ trolley cars stands freshly finished and empty — vacant because the Gables’ trolleys will not go into them.
After a land deal with the Gables, the city of Miami approved the structure despite residents’ objections, spurring complaints that led to a flurry of lawsuits and a federal civil rights investigation, because the project was partly funded with federal money and residents were not properly notified of the project. The Federal Transit Administration later found that Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and the city of Coral Gables had violated the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 because no one studied whether the garage would have a disparate impact on minorities.
Only about one mile away in Coral Gables, on the other side of U.S. 1, stands the old depot near the Village of Merrick Park, where a developer — Henry Torres, president of the trolleys’ parent company, The Astor Cos. — would have built a high-rise condominium tower with a new trolley garage underneath it. The proposed project at 301 Altara Ave., to be called Merrick Manor, was the linchpin in a proposed settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Gables against Astor contending that the developer didn’t follow Miami’s zoning code.
Working against time as a suspension of the lawsuit expired, the city and Astor agreed to new settlement terms last week, according to an agreement signed Friday evening by the developer and city attorney Craig Leen.
“I’m satisfied,” Leen told the Miami Herald on Friday. “My main concern was I wanted to settle to resolve the FTA matter, the civil rights matter.”
Under the new terms, the city would sell the land on Altara Avenue to Astor for $3.9 million. Astor would then lease the property as it is now back to the city for $1 for at least eight months and no more than one year. The city would use the current trolley facility that’s there while Astor goes through the standard review process before breaking ground on Merrick Manor, which would have a 500-square-foot police substation on its first floor.
Merrick Manor would also be smaller than previously discussed. The LeJeune Road side would be no taller than eight stories, and the Laguna Street side would not exceed 10 stories. In essence, the city would have to make fewer code exceptions for Astor.
Meanwhile, the city would have to scout a new location for a trolley depot. An idea already in the mix is to build it at 525 S. Dixie Hwy., where a fire station with a training facility and fueling station now stand. The city’s Public Works Department estimates it would cost about $5 million to put the garage there.
The West Grove facility would not get used at all by Coral Gables. The parties arrived at the new terms after a week of meetings to iron out the details.
At its July 22 meeting, the Coral Gables City Commission heard the terms of the original settlement: The developer would build a 13-story, 283-unit condo tower at 301 Altara Avenue with a trolley depot on the first floor.
But after hearing concerns about the high-rise project raised by the Interim City Manager Carmen Olazabal, commissioners sent her and Leen back to the negotiating table with Torres. That meeting grew tense at times, as it became clear Olazabal felt that the city’s staff should have had more input during negotiations.
Commissioner Vince Lago served as the commission’s representative during the talks last week. On Friday, he said he was confident that a satisfactory proposal would get delivered to the commission Monday.
“It’s something that’s going to be beneficial to the city and the developer,” he said.
In a July 21 memo to commissioners, Olazabal outlined several issues with the settlement, including the number of planned units for the tower, its height and other issues with code compliance. Basically, the city, which is known for having a stringent process for reviewing new developments, would have had to make several code exceptions for Astor.
Commissioners echoed Olazabal when they asked everyone to hash out a better agreement that dealt with the listed issues. All the players met over several meetings last week to work it out. Even retired county administrator Merrett Stierheim, a widely respected figure in municipal government, was asked to participate in the discussions.
On Friday, minutes before entering a meeting to try to finalize terms of a settlement, Olazabal said she’s worked closely with Leen to give the commission a good deal.
“We’ve come to something that better addresses their concerns,” she said.
Mario Garcia-Serra, attorney for Astor, said he felt confident going into Monday’s meeting.
“I think everyone will find it satisfactory,” he said.
Back in the West Grove, it remains to be seen what will happen with the empty garage on Douglas Road. At the July 22 hearing in the Gables, attorneys for the residents said that a settlement in a separate suit against the city of Miami had been reached in principal.
Clarice Cooper, who lives across from the garage and sits on the community’s steering committee, said residents are patiently waiting to see how the legal matters get resolved.
Cooper filed the civil rights complaint that triggered the investigation. She said she would like to see the building repurposed into a community center or something similar that would benefit the neighborhood.
But she noted that it didn’t have to come to this.
“This didn’t even have to happen,” she said. “I wish more thought had been given to this before it even came here.”