In lushly verdant Coconut Grove, where a wave of ungainly residential redevelopment has mowed down trees and homes by the score, at least one house — late local legend Charlie Cinnamon’s century-old cottage — is still standing, at least for now. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the tiny wooden house has survived the first attempt at demolition by a developer.
In a rare and unexpected move, Miami’s zoning board blocked demolition of Cinnamon’s 1919 cottage, which sits at the edge of an expansive tree-covered property where a developer hopes to build a large house.
It’s unclear whether the board’s decision will survive an almost-certain appeal by the developer, Andrew Raskin. But Thursday night’s 5-3 vote has heartened Grove residents fighting back against what they contend is the city’s failure to enforce zoning rules amid an onslaught by developers that’s stripping the village’s residential neighborhoods, Miami’s oldest, of their historic look and feel.
The zoning board decision came after an adjacent property owner on Palmetto Avenue appealed a city zoning official’s OK of the demolition. Though the cottage is not designated as historic and demolition applications are routinely approved, the board majority agreed with attorney Tucker Gibbs, who represents next-door owner Delfini LLC, that allowing its destruction would violate special zoning rules designed to protect the Grove’s tree canopy and historic character.
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Activists who have been fighting construction of large, lot-filling new houses in the Grove, most in a contemporary style that some dismiss as “white boxes,” contend that city planning and zoning officials have disregarded those rules in granting approvals for the new homes.
That line of argument seemed to win over a majority of zoning board members after prolonged debate.
Gibbs told board members, citing the “neighborhood conservation district” language, that those rules are meant to both protect and enhance the Grove’s ambience. He argued that means protecting its homes as well, even if not specifically designated as historic, unless doing so would make it difficult for a property owner to build.
“What the city is doing is just saying a demolition permit is allowed, and it’s no different from anything else in the city of Miami. But you have to enforce the intent of the NCD,” Gibb said after the hearing. “If you’re demolishing to have a clean slate and build a huge house, what’s the point? It’s supposed to fit with the existing as-built fabric of the community. The city is ignoring the intent of the NCD.”
In the case of the Cinnamon property, Gibbs said, the cottage occupies less than 1,000 square feet on a 14,000 square-foot lot, meaning Raskin could still build a massive home without disturbing the tiny house.
Raskin’s attorney, Ben Fernandez, did not respond to a message requesting comment. An appeal would go to Miami-Dade circuit court.
That the cottage was Cinnamon’s longtime home makes it especially worth saving, Gibbs and neighbors argued. Though an apparently cursory review by the city’s preservation officer raised no objections to demolition, some say the home may merit designation given its age, the fact that it typified early Grove homes, and its association with Cinnamon. The founding of Coconut Grove in the 1870s predates the incorporation of the city of Miami, which eventually absorbed the former village, by more than 20 years.
Cinnamon, who died in his home in November 2016 at age 94, was a prominent theatrical publicist long associated with the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse and a leading Grove figure. He was best known as the founder of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, one of the city’s premier events.
Neighbors have been trying to turn a portion of Cinnamon’s old homestead that’s actually a broad, wooded public swale into a park in his memory. The swale, which Grove activist Glenn Terry has nicknamed “Charlie’s Woods,” is one of four corners at the intersection of Palmetto and Plaza Street donated to the city a century ago for a park that was never built.
Terry and other residents have begun holding picnics and holiday celebrations on the corner and have asked the city to formally declare the space a park.