Coral Gables settles dispute over trolley garage

Coral Gables officials will put the garage in their own city, instead of a historically black section of Coconut Grove.

08/04/2014 1:51 PM

08/05/2014 8:35 AM

Coral Gables will look for a new spot within the city to build its next trolley garage after the City Commission approved a settlement Monday that ends the dispute over a controversial garage built in neighboring Coconut Grove without consulting residents.

An earlier vote stalled on July 22 when the Coral Gables city staff raised concerns about the details of an initial settlement proposal. That plan would have had developer Henry Torres, who owns the trolley company’s parent, the Astor Cos., build a condominium high-rise called Merrick Manor with a trolley garage on the first floor. After further negotiations, a second proposal went before the commission on Monday.

Under the approved settlement, city would sell the land at 301 Altara Ave. to Astor, which would then lease it back to the city for at least eight months and no more than a year. This would give the city time to find a new location to develop a trolley garage.

One idea on the table is a fire station at 525 S. Dixie Hwy., where the city estimates it would cost about $5 million to build a garage.

Meanwhile, Astor’s project would seek approval from the city’s Board of Architects before moving forward. The settlement allows for certain exceptions to the city’s zoning code, but fewer than previously proposed.

Attorney Stephen Helfman, who helped represent the city, told commissioners the first proposal had too many problems for city planners.

“Trying to push everybody together into one building was creating tremendous conflict,” Helfman said.

The commission sent interim city manager Carmen Olazabal and City Attorney Craig Leen back to the bargaining table to negotiate a new deal. On Monday, the result was enough to satisfy all five commissioners.

After the unanimous vote, Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. said the city had done its best to make the most of a messy situation.

“This is much much better than what we were talking about before,” he said. “Am I happy about this? No. Am I voting for it? Yes, because I think it’s in the best interest of the city of Coral Gables.”

Tadd Schwartz, a spokesman for Astor, said the company was pleased to finally move forward with Merrick Manor.

“Merrick Manor will result in a very positive economic impact in the form of new tax revenue and spending in the city as well as a very significant aesthetic improvement to this area of the city,” he said. “A site which is today composed of vacant land and an outdated building will become a beautiful home and place of business for many.”

The legal battles started when residents of the West Grove, a neighborhood populated by descendants of the pioneering black Bahamians who helped build parts of Miami and Coral Gables, protested the construction of a garage for Gables trolleys in their backyard. A complaint to the Federal Transit Administration led to an investigation that found Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and the city of Coral Gables had violated 1964 Civil Rights Act because no one had conducted a study on whether the trolley garage, a mass-transit project partly funded with federal money, would have a disparate impact on minorities.

A flurry of lawsuits followed. Monday’s decision settles the dispute between the Gables and Astor Trolley, which arose when the Gables took the position of West Grove residents that Astor had not followed Miami’s zoning code when it built the garage.

West Grove residents are still left with a an empty trolley garage in their neighborhood with no guarantee the facility will be used as a museum or community center, as some residents wish to see it.

Williams Armbrister, whose family has lived in the West Grove for three generations, told commissioners that everyone involved should work toward making the building a museum that commemorates the Bahamians who helped build the area and eventually settled there.

“I don’t want you to feel like it’s all over and done, because it’s not all over and done,” he said.

Attorneys said Monday a second settlement that would resolve the lawsuit between the West Grove residents and Astor simply needs to written and signed, and that the parties have agreed in principle to its terms.

Patrick Sessions, former chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council, told the commission that the settlement limits the uses of the building to keep it from becoming an auto repair shop or something similar. Residents would have 90 days to buy the property for $4 million before Torres could put it on the market.

Alan Dimond, an attorney for Astor, said the parties went through a mediation process that produced an agreement his client intends to honor.

“We can assure you we will honor the deal we’ve reached through mediation,” he told the commission.

An earlier version of this article misidentified Patrick Sessions as the chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council. He is a former chairman and no longer serves on the council.

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