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Building of bus depot rankles Coconut Grove neighborhood

To make way for a big mixed-use project on LeJeune Road, Coral Gables made a deal to move the maintenance depot for its popular trolley-bus line somewhere else — as it turns out, a block outside the city line in a residential neighborhood in Miami’s predominantly black west Coconut Grove.

Now the start of foundation work for the big new depot over the Christmas holidays has provoked a furious backlash from West Grove residents. They charge that the Gables — with the cooperation of the city of Miami — is dumping an unwanted industrial facility on a low-income, minority neighborhood that lacks the clout to fight it. The new depot site, which fronts Douglas Road, backs up to single-family homes and sits catty-corner from a church.

“Could it be more obvious?” asked Pierre Sands, president of the Coconut Grove Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association, adding that Miami and Gables officials ignored strenuous objections to the new depot from surrounding homeowners and local organizations, including residents of an abutting West Grove historic district that lies within Gables city boundaries. “It’s a different standard for us, and we’re not ignorant of that. We just get ramrodded every time.’’

Bound by zoning rules

One thing that especially rankles residents, Sands said: Gables officials never appeared at community meetings to explain their rationale, sending the private developer building the new garage to speak in their stead.

Miami planning and zoning officials, meanwhile, approved the new depot without a formal public hearing, saying they were bound by zoning rules that allow the facility to be built so long as it’s designed to minimize its impact on the surroundings.

The new one-story garage, which has room for offices and 12 trolleys although the Gables’ fleet has just six of the buses, will be completely enclosed and air-conditioned to contain noise, fumes and odors, and work will be limited to basic maintenance, the city said. The building’s exterior has Caribbean-style architecture to echo the area’s Bahamian heritage.

Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes West Grove, said there was nothing he could legally do to block the depot. Instead, he said, he and city planning director Francisco Garcia focused on improving the initial proposal by the developer, Astor Development, to make it more compatible with the neighborhood. Sarnoff said he also won an agreement from Astor to donate $200,000 to improve a local city park, although that has not been finalized.

“It was a less-than-desirable situation, and we made it palatable,’’ Sarnoff said. “In fact, I think it’s an improvement. It’s a very attractive building.’’

Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason was on vacation and did not respond to a message requesting an interview. Gables Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. had an attorney for Astor, which selected and purchased the site and is also building the new depot for the city, return a Herald reporter’s call.

The Gables’ director of economic sustainability, Cynthia Birdsill, said the deal with Astor — in the works for more than a year — left the details up to the developer, including appearing in community forums. Under a swap agreement approved in August, the Gables will turn over the existing trolley garage site to Astor for development of its Merrick Manor project once the developer completes the new depot.

The city asked Astor to put the new depot in the Gables, but the developer said he couldn’t, Birdsill said.

“He could not find land [inside Coral Gables] at a price that would work for him,’’ she said.

Astor’s attorney, Mario Garcia-Serra of Greenberg, Traurig, said there were few properties with the right zoning close to the trolley route, which runs from the Douglas Road Metrorail station through downtown Coral Gables to Flagler Street. His client, he said, doesn’t believe the depot will burden the neighborhood, which desperately needs new commercial development.

“This at least brings some sort of development, some sort of activity, to the West Grove,’’ he said.

That posture infuriates residents, who say plunking down a bus garage and maintenance shop in the neighborhood, no matter how well designed, will do nothing to lift the area’s fortunes and will only hurt home values already in decline because of the economic crisis. The area’s homes, some valued up to $130,000 by Miami-Dade’s property appraiser, have provided a measure of social and economic stability even as much of the West Grove has gone into decline, losing population and businesses at a steady pace.

“Who wants to buy a house behind a depot?’’ asked Al Henry, whose 72-year-old mother, Dorothy Henry, has owned the pink house with flower beds directly behind the site since 1985. “You know this is just going to be a big mechanic’s shop. It’s just four feet away and when you’re looking out the side windows, you’re going to be looking at a wall.

“We had the house appraised when we got word of this. I’m not going to tell you what it was, but it’s peanuts.’’

Dorothy Henry, recently retired after 46 years as a secretary at Miami Children’s Hospital, raised her five children in the home and is now raising three adopted kids, ages 10, 12 and 15. Her barbecue grill backs up to a weedy chain link fence that stands in what used to be her neighbor’s yard. Astor demolished that house, along with other buildings that included a four-plex and a neighborhood institution, Bernice’s Soul Food restaurant, which fronted Douglas.

Trolley won’t extend service

The five parcels purchased by Astor for the depot sit on Douglas between Frow and Oak avenues, and homes will face the new depot at the back and both sides.

Once the depot opens, staff and drivers will arrive for work as early as 5 a.m. and not leave until 11 p.m. Though the city says trolleys can only transit on Douglas Road, entrances and exits will be on Frow and Oak, and neighbors like the Henrys worry about safety for the neighborhood children who gather to play and ride bikes along the street.

“They all come here versus going up Grand Avenue because they know this is a safe street,” Al Henry said, as two girls on purple bicycles pedaled back and forth on the street.

Said his mother, “You could look out anytime and see 35 kids just playing.”

Adding insult to injury, residents say, is that once they realized the depot was effectively a done deal, they asked that the Gables at least extend trolley service to the neighborhood, and provide a small retail space or kiosk in the depot for a business that could serve the community. They note that the Gables city line is just a block west of the new depot, and that the garage will affect Gables residents, too.

“We felt like it was almost a fait accompli, so we said, ‘Let’s create something beneficial for the community,’’’ said Jihad Rashid, vice president of the Village West association. “How about some jobs? How about retail? How about trolley stops?”

The Gables’ answer, again relayed through the developer: No.

Birdsill, the Gables development director, said extending trolley service would have cost the city $200,000 and also required purchase of a new bus.

But Grove residents and activists argue that the Gables will benefit substantially from the deal with Astor, gaining a large, modern depot to replace its obsolete facility, as well as a significant boost in property tax revenue from the new development — a mixed-use, 180-unit rental apartment and retail complex that will fill nearly an entire city block.

By Astor’s and the Gables’ own reckoning, the city has already gained more than $1 million from the swap: Astor is paying $3.2 million to buy the Grove land and build the garage in exchange for Gables-owned parcels valued at under $1.9 million, according to city documents.

The existing garage, on LeJeune across from Coral Gables High School, sits in what was formerly the Gables’ industrial district. The city has been gradually transforming the area, once home to a collection of auto body shops, warehouse-type offices and the city’s maintenance yard, into a dense, upscale neighborhood of shops, condos and apartments. The maintenance yard, moved west of the Gables to unincorporated Miami-Dade County a decade ago, was replaced by the tony Village of Merrick Park designer-store mall.

West Grove residents say they should not have to bear the weight of the Gables’ gentrification efforts. Longtime residents and homeowners, some of whose families have lived in the West Grove for generations, say they are struggling to maintain the area’s character, and the Gables’ bus garage won’t help.

Residents complain that they received little to no meaningful notification of the project and, without a public hearing, only token opportunities to express opposition.

“This project is going to change the dynamics of the neighborhood,’’ said Clarice Cooper, who works in The Miami Herald’s advertising department, grew up in the West Grove and lives three doors down from the new depot. “I don’t think a trolley garage is going to benefit our neighborhood, aesthetically, financially or otherwise.’’

Unable to afford an attorney and tired of constant battles, though, residents and activists decided not to appeal when the planning director approved the new garage in June.

“We’re just regular people and we’re trying to get through this bad economy, and we don’t have the time and resources to follow up everything that the city does,’’ Sands said. “People get tired and worn down.’’

But the start of digging earlier this month reawakened residents’ simmering anger, he said, as well as bitterness that Sarnoff and city officials did not fight harder on their behalf.

“We were dealt with in a patronizing way. The City of Miami dropped the ball and they owe us better,’’ Sands said. “I guess it’s a win-win for everybody except for the folks in Coconut Grove.’’