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Trolley depot headed back to Coral Gables

Hoping to end months of bitter fighting over a new Coral Gables trolley garage that enraged residents of a historic black neighborhood in Coconut Grove and violated a landmark U.S. civil rights law, Coral Gables and a developer have come up with a surprising solution.

Leave it in Coral Gables, but hide it from sight.

In a deal being hammered out by both sides, yet another new trolley garage would be built underneath luxury high-rise condominiums that developer Henry Torres hopes to erect on Le Jeune Road, near tony Merrick Park.

The city would need to use the 12-bay depot that neighbors bitterly oppose in the 3300 block of Douglas Road in the West Grove while the new depot is being constructed. After two or three years, the trolleys would then move out, said Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen.

But it remains uncertain what will happen to the trolley depot that was built in the West Grove and inflamed the residents.

“That is going to be between [the developer] and the residents,” said Leen, who shared the plan last week with the attorney for the residents and two members of the Coconut Grove Village Council who sit on a steering committee.

“It could be a simple resolution of the matter because we’re keeping the trolley building where it is now, so how could anybody be unhappy with that?” he asked.

But residents of the West Grove, a neighborhood settled by the area’s pioneering black Bahamians in the late 1800s, are wary.

“I’m afraid it would never go away,” said resident Clarice Cooper, who lives across the street from the nearly finished garage and filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that triggered the federal civil rights investigation. “Two years can seem like a lifetime.”

Leen and Torres’ attorneys asked a judge Tuesday to suspend their ongoing lawsuit for 60 days while they work out details, Leen said. The city also hopes to persuade residents to drop an appeal in their lawsuit against the city of Miami. The residents contend the newly built trolley depot did not follow Miami’s zoning laws.

“If we resolve this case, we want it completely resolved, so we want the residents to dismiss their appeal,” he said. “So this may have to be a settlement between all the groups.”

Any deal would also have to win approval from the FTA, which found that both Coral Gables and Miami as well Miami-Dade County violated part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said.

For his part, Torres, president of The Astor Companies, is keeping tight-lipped.

“The Astor Companies remains in settlement discussions with the City of Coral Gables — with the goal of clearing the path for development and addressing the City’s needs for a trolley garage,” the company said in a statement. “We are working with the City to finalize an amicable settlement under the City Manager’s leadership, and we believe we will arrive at a resolution in the near future.”

The garage in the West Grove was part of a land swap Torres brokered with Coral Gables so that he could build the condos in the city’s former industrial triangle, now being redeveloped as a center for lavish high-rise living. After finding that nearby land was too expensive, Torres settled on Douglas Road in the West Grove, assembling several pieces of land that backed up against houses and bungalows where some of the neighborhood’s original families still live.

When the city of Miami approved the garage over their objections, residents were incensed.

Two homeowners associations passed resolutions opposing it, and neighbors staged protests. Some accused Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the neighborhood, of trying to divide and conquer by securing a $200,000 donation from Torres to improve football fields and win support from the neighborhood’s popular Pop Warner football league.

After the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service helped round up a team of pro bono attorneys, residents headed to court, arguing that the garage violated Miami’s zoning code that prohibits industrial, government-operated garages in the area.

UM students helping residents also unearthed emails between Miami city staffers indicating that some thought the garage did not comply with codes and should be scrapped. But a judge refused to hear the case, saying residents failed to follow the proper steps to lodge their objections with the city of Miami. The residents appealed.

The residents’ suit then prompted Coral Gables to conclude the garage violated Miami’s zoning code, and the city asked a judge to determine whether the zoning question voided its contract with Torres.

“We were concerned that emails showed some internal disagreement, and we wanted to look into that,” Leen said. But in depositions, Miami staff members insisted the code was followed, he said.

“[Miami] is not backing away from its approval, so at this point we have to consider what’s in the best interest of our residents and the residents of Coconut Grove,” he said.

One sticking point could be attorney fees. Coral Gables wants Torres to cover its costs for outside counsel.

“The city is not supposed to come out of pocket to do this deal,” Leen said. “So that’s one of our goals.”

And if the deal goes through, the West Grove garage ultimately needs to benefit residents, said their attorney, Phil Friedin.

“In order to persuade the community that this would be a good thing, I think it’s necessary that some disposition of that building be made in a way that’s positive to the community,” he said. “Other than that, I think there’d be serious opposition.”

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