Clarice Cooper and her neighbors fought City Hall and won. But two years later, the victory feels a little hollow.
After proving the city of Miami violated federal civil rights laws and possibly zoning codes, West Coconut Grove residents were able to stop the city and developer Henry Torres from opening a trolley maintenance facility in the heart of their historic black neighborhood. Yet, the building was still built, and now it sits empty with little clarity on what will happen next.
After all, who has use for a trolley warehouse that can’t warehouse trolleys?
“I still look over there every day and wonder ‘What’s going to come here?’ ” said Cooper, who lives across the street.
The answer, if one Miami commissioner gets his way, gives her reason for optimism.
Ken Russell, elected in November to represent Coconut Grove, wants Miami to buy the warehouse, renovate it, and reopen it as a community center for young teenagers. He wants the City Commission to vote Thursday to approve negotiations with landlord Astor Trolley.
“The city kind of owes this back to the community. It’s a symbol of what the West Grove has gone through at the hands of the city for decades. I hear it from the community all the time, going back to Old Smokey,” Russell said, referencing the long-gone incinerator that once burned municipal garbage and spewed ash into the neighborhood.
“[The city] put what was going to be a trolley garage in the neighborhood that they could not have gotten away with in any other part of the Grove. The fact that they were successful in stopping them … the story isn’t complete until it’s made right again.”
The saga of the empty trolley garage at 3320 Douglas Rd. began three years ago when West Grove neighbors learned the city of Coral Gables had cut a deal with Astor Development to build luxury condos on the site where its trolleys were previously stored. Torres’ company would get the city’s $1.9 million Le Jeune Road property and, at an estimated cost of $3.2 million to the developer, build a new garage at a new site.
West Grove residents lashed out at Coral Gables. And with the help of University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri, they sued the city of Miami, arguing they had not received proper notice before construction began. The investigation of the issue also turned up evidence the city had sat for years on concerns of contamination at several West Grove sites linked to dumped incinerator ash.
In the meantime, Cooper complained the project violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires neighborhood surveys when federal transportation money is used. Federal officials agreed and cited Coral Gables and Miami as well as the county for failing to study whether race played a role in the location of the warehouse or whether its operation would have an adverse impact on the West Grove.
In another blow for Torres, Coral Gables changed heart and sued the developer, alleging Astor had failed to follow Miami’s zoning code.
Astor completed the project, but a settlement with Coral Gables moved trolley storage facilities to a new location and left the Grove warehouse empty. Torres is now trying to sell the building, with an asking price of $3.8 million.
Recently, he thought he had a buyer in Community Health of South Florida, but the nonprofit seems unlikely to purchase the building after a push to secure $3 million in county bond funds fell apart last month. A spokeswoman for the clinic said the facility remains an option as Community Health tries to expand its health services in the West Grove, but without the bond money they’re now “evaluating all opportunities.”
“I would have really liked that health facility to go into that district,” said Torres. “It didn’t go through, and that’s a loss for the West Grove.”
Torres disputes that he or the city tried to ram the warehouse down the throats of unsuspecting West Grove residents, but he said he’s had previous discussions with Miami officials about selling the building to the city. There was talk at one point about a police substation, or a Bahamian consulate. Still, he said he hadn’t heard anything about Russell’s interest, or even received a call from the commissioner — which he found somewhat presumptuous.
“How do you know I want to sell it to you?” he asked.
Russell said he doesn’t. Nor does he know if his colleagues will support his desire to negotiate with Torres, or if the neighborhood will support a community center. But that idea sounds good to Cooper. And to Alfieri, the UM professor, it also sounds right.
“Given the West Grove’s Jim Crow history of municipal segregation in housing, education, and even public water access, and the current exploitation and displacement of long time West Grove residents,” Alfieri said, “Commissioner Russell’s proposed community center at the site of the misbegotten trolley garage is an important public policy initiative both to remedy past wrongs and to preserve and strengthen the surviving West Grove community.”