Coral Gables sues developer over Coconut Grove trolley garage

Coral Gables has sued the company building a controversial trolley garage for the city in neighboring Coconut Grove, saying the garage doesn’t comply with zoning rules in the surrounding historic black neighborhood.

[CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a statement by Astor attorney Mario Garcia-

Serra about a declaratory judgment was mischaracterized. It has been corrected in this version.]

And unless a judge rules otherwise, Coral Gables will walk away from the deal it struck with the developer, City Attorney Craig Leen said Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, asks a judge to determine whether the garage, in the 3300 block of Douglas Road, is allowed at that location under Miami’s regulations. Although the Gables would be the garage’s owner, the site is in the Grove, which is a part of the city of Miami.

The suit also asks the judge to decide if developer Henry Torres complied with the deal brokered last year when the city agreed to trade land occupied by the city’s current garage at 4133 S. Le Jeune Road so Torres could build a 10-story, luxury condominium.

Whether the new garage is allowed under Miami’s code has long been a matter of contention, with residents, who sued to stop it earlier this year, arguing it does not. Now, Coral Gables agrees.

“We believe it doesn’t meet the zoning,” Leen said Wednesday. “Ultimately, that’s for a court to decide, and we need the court to give us a declaration because the parties don’t agree. We did not contract for a building that was illegal.”

Leen said the city decided to sue because the developer is close to finishing the building and turning it over to the city.

Neighbors of the garage have been objecting since Torres’ company, Astor Development, approached homeowner associations asking for support in March 2012. Two homeowner associations, located in the historic black neighborhoods in Coconut Grove and a small section of Coral Gables, drafted resolutions opposing it. They grew angrier when they learned that Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff was helping gain support for the garage by meeting with other groups, and that he promised coaches for the neighborhood’s popular Pop Warner football league that the developer would donate $200,000 to improve fields at Armbrister Park.

Despite the objections, Miami planners signed off on the project, which backs up against single-family houses.

So in January, after the University of Miami Law School’s Center for Ethics and Public Service rounded up a team of pro bono attorneys, residents sued. They argued that because the garage will be owned by the city, it qualifies as a government maintenance garage, something not allowed under Miami’s code, which only permits commercial auto-related garages. They also said the city’s online appeal process was cumbersome and, at $1,000, expensive.

But Astor claimed that because residents had not followed that process and objected within two weeks of the garage’s approval, they had no grounds to sue.

Last month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick ruled in the developer’s favor, saying he had no jurisdiction to step into the fight.

In a statement Wednesday, Astor attorney Mario Garcia-Serra, of Greenberg Traurig, said Coral Gables is “seeking a declaratory judgment to confirm that the City of Miami’s zoning approval for the new trolley building was appropriate. We have maintained from the beginning that the building was designed and constructed in adherence with the City of Miami Zoning Code.”

But UM law professor Anthony Alfieri, director of the ethics center, said the opposite: The city’s position asserts the developer failed to comply with the Miami 21 building guidelines.

“That said, Coral Gables’ delay in bringing this action rather than joining in common cause with its own residents is both disappointing and perplexing. Judge Dresnick’s court would certainly have benefitted from hearing the city’s view that Astor Trolley’s garage is in violation.”

If a judge rules the garage meets the code, Leen said the city will take over the building.

“Our goal is to follow the contract,” he said.