Modern houses are changing the face of West Coconut Grove
For Sale: Brand new homes in formerly historic, formerly leafy West Coconut Grove that epitomize neighborly living. So neighborly, in fact, that you could reach out the window and shake your next-door neighbor’s hand or exchange a cup of sugar. The second-story eaves, just 12 inches apart, make it easy to step across for rooftop parties or sunbathing sessions. There’s the joy of listening to your neighbor’s favorite music and TV shows. And his cute Rottweiler might as well be barking in your tiny backyard! If you like to shower in the nude, no worries, custom frosted glass has got you covered.
These dream houses, squished together like ham and cheese in a Cuban sandwich, are available in Coconut Grove despite apparent violations of the required 5-foot setback between property line and exterior wall, which gives 10 feet of breathing space between dwellings. Houses illegally built too close to each other pose fire hazards, reduce property values and destroy privacy.
The houses at 3374 and 3384 Day Avenue, one under construction, one occupied, have a total of 4 feet, 10 inches between them.
“I was out there with my 6-year-old and a tape measure, and it was painfully obvious to both of us that you can barely walk between the houses,” said David Winker, a Miami lawyer who has complained to the city on behalf of longtime West Grove homeowner Melissa Meyer, who first alerted city officials about the zoning aberrations 19 months ago. “It is so widespread. Houses will have to be torn down and people will be fired.”
In historically black West Coconut Grove, one of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods, founded by Bahamian immigrants, boxy white houses that have all the charm of a garage freezer are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Many are constructed and sold despite visible code violations as developers find ways around the city’s 5-foot setback rule and 25-foot height limit.
Large two-story modern homes and duplexes pressed to the edges of lot lines are crammed next to modest older homes, resulting in a hodgepodge of scale and design. One 75-year-old house on New York Street sits uncomfortably close to the towering white wall of the adjacent house, which would be ideal for screening outdoor movies or mural-painting, joke the neighbors, cynically.
The duplexes practically kissing each other on Day Avenue were approved by the city by mistake, and the city’s new zoning director, Joseph Ruiz, has asked the developer to fix the extreme setback infraction. But the city gave permission to divide the original lot and build two structures.
“Unfortunately, developers have a history of circumventing our code in order to maximize square footage and minimize setbacks,” Commissioner Ken Russell said. “However, if the developer and builder acted with the blessing of the city, we share in the blame.”
P.J. Chandler, who was born in the West Grove 70 years ago, worries that she will soon have to move, as many of her relatives have. She lives in an aging duplex on Elizabeth Street that her landlord could sell for $500,000 to a developer who could bulldoze it, build something that looks like the surrounding sugar-cube houses and sell for $800,000 and up.
“The love I had for the Grove is gone,” said Chandler, lamenting how her cat was killed by a speeding driver and how her street has turned into a junky, noisy construction zone. Most of the beautiful oak trees were removed; the one remaining in front of her place was butchered. She lists people who were bought out, evicted, defrauded in mortgage scams — friends, former classmates, members of her church, cousins, her brother’s godmother, her husband’s uncle.
“A lot of the homeowners moved to Georgia,” she said. “Those who moved to Richmond Heights and Liberty City say prices are going up and developers are coming around. There’s no place left for black people to go.”
Her simple place is no Taj Mahal, but it’s home and it looks like it belongs on cozy Elizabeth Street, unlike those at 3174, 3176, 3184 and 3186, where the setbacks are 2 feet instead of 5, according to Winker and Meyer.
“Most of these houses look like doctors’ offices or hotels. They won’t last, and neither will the people buying them. They’re transient. They have no roots here,” said Chandler, giving a brief history of the five original houses left on her block.
“When people say they want to move to Miami, I say move to Coral Gables or Pinecrest where they follow the rules. Miami just makes rules to break them. The city has never cared about the black Grove.”
Meyer has lived in the West Grove for 27 years. As the building boom accelerated, Meyer, an architectural designer, noticed how some of the new construction was encroaching into the 5-foot side setback area, including the house going up next to the house of her friend and neighbor, Dorothy Wilcox.
Like Wilcox, Meyer owns a 1926 Mission style house built by the Bahamian settlers of Coconut Grove. Theirs were among four in a row on Ohio Street; one next to Meyer’s house was torn down and replaced by two townhouses that are selling for $1.295 million each.
Meyer has measured setbacks at half a dozen houses or duplexes under construction nearby and reported violations in a string of emails and phone calls to the city starting in December, 2017. She received one response acknowledging violations from former zoning director Devin Cejas, who posted stop work orders at two of them. But construction continued unabated, and one of those two houses is finished and for sale; the other is nearing completion.
Meyer participated in Neighborhood Conservation District planning workshops led by Miami architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk a dozen years ago with the goal of preserving the West Grove’s character with consistent design hewing to the Bahamian Village style. But their guidelines have not been followed.
To Meyer, what’s happening is a continuation of discriminatory practices in the West Grove.
“It’s the latest example of disregard for civil rights in the West Grove,” she said. “There has always been a lack of investment and enforcement in minority neighborhoods. Here you have Mrs. Wilcox, who raised six kids in that house, who worked hard to buy it, and now she is disrespected and ignored because she is an elderly black woman.
“The city, in not protecting property rights, is also violating civil rights by neglecting repeated requests to enforce the zoning code.”
Meyer has watched her neighbors leave one by one. Some decided to cash in. In other cases, the children who inherited the house sold it. Many moved reluctantly and still return on weekends to socialize or attend church, Meyer said.
“We used to have three and four generations of families on this street. Everybody knew each other, looked out for each other. It had a hometown, family feel,” she said. “But even my kids’ friends have moved away. They couldn’t afford to live here. As the mortgage scam era evolved, some older homeowners got conned out of their houses.”
Meyer recalled a historic coral rock and Dade County pine house that belonged to a neighbor who lost it in foreclosure. He moved to Richmond Heights to live with his daughter.
“It doesn’t look like Coconut Grove anymore; it looks like a depressing overbuilt suburb that could be anywhere,” said Meyer, who has been offered $380,000 for her house but is not interested in selling. “The vernacular is almost wiped out. It’s much more profitable for developers to tear down a 900- or 1,200-square-foot house instead of restoring it and replace it with a 3,000-square-foot house or 6,000-square-foot duplex. The developer gets a lot of bang for his buck, gets in and out fast.
“I walk my dog around the block, and a house that was there yesterday is gone the next day.”
In his paper entitled “Black, Poor and Gone: Civil Rights Law’s Inner City Crisis,” published recently in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri described “the socioeconomic conditions that cause and perpetuate poverty, and, equally important, the government (federal, state and local) policies and practices that spawn mass eviction and reinforce residential segregation.
“Widely adopted by municipalities, those displacement-producing and segregation-enforcing policies and practices — neighborhood zoning, land use designation, building condemnation and demolition, and housing code under or over enforcement — have caused and will continue to cause the involuntary removal of low-income tenants and homeowners from gentrifying urban spaces and their forced out-migration to impoverished suburban spaces.”
It’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself in Miami and other big cities, said Winker, who wrote to city officials on July 16 but has not received a response.
“Failure to enforce code is effectively erasing the identity of this historically significant and traditionally marginalized community, while unleashing a series of consequential damages that range from putting lives at risk to devaluing surrounding properties, which has a direct impact on the transfer of intergenerational wealth,” he wrote.
“So now you have citizens with tape measures having to act as zoning inspectors or hire lawyers because the city doesn’t do its job, and developers know the city isn’t going to do anything to them,” he said. “It’s insane.”
He places blame on the city for lax code compliance.
“It’s easy to paint developers as devils even though many believe they are doing the right thing and improving neighborhoods,” Winker said. “The way you create a slum is you don’t enforce the rules, you don’t fix infrastructure, you don’t provide adequate services and you let the neighborhood run down. When people in Coral Gables see something wrong, their city is immediately all over it.”
Russell recounts with a frustrated sigh how he’s tried to stanch the invasion of the white cubes for years. He opposed lot-splitting that allowed developers to build multiple houses on one parcel. He advocated reducing the percentage a house’s footprint occupies on a lot to discourage blueprints devised to maximize square footage and sale prices.
“The cube is not a design, it’s a mathematical formula that produces the maximum built-out square footage for these hulking structures that degrade the community,” he said. “It’s not that the buyer doesn’t care that there’s no yard and no trees. It’s the speculator doubling his profits. The majority of recent speculation and demolition has been in the West Grove.”
A fake homeowners association called Beautiful Grove was created by developers to defeat Russell’s proposal to shrink footprint size “with a horrible misinformation campaign saying we were hurting African-Americans’ right to cash out,” he said.
Russell is aware of setback violations and wants to halt the deceptive practice by simplifying and strengthening the city’s building code.
“The language of the current code has a lot of inconsistencies and is way too open to interpretation, giving developers room to perform legal gymnastics, find loopholes, fiddle with features like bay windows and obtain approval for projects that should be rejected,” he said. “Houses not in compliance should be undone.”
Developer Andy Parrish, who has focused on affordable housing compatible with traditional West Grove style, said it is difficult to assess blame within the labyrinth of bureaucracy.
“The violations could originate with the developer, the contractor, the surveyor, the inspector or a combination,” he said. “Before it’s too late to save the personality of the Grove, the city needs to send a strong message by demolishing one of these million-dollar monstrosities.”
Laurent Bernazzani, developer of the properties on Ohio and Elizabeth streets and multiple other Grove properties, said he has no knowledge of violations because the city has approved his plans for the past five years, including for homes with the same footprint that have already been sold.
The townhouses within arm’s length of each other on Day Avenue exist because a “unity of title” designation originally granted to the owner of the 10,000-square-foot lot allowed the first duplex to be built on what later became the property line of what was then considered one unified building site.
When the city granted a release from the unified designation, the plans submitted for the second duplex on the newly created Lot 2 showed compliance with the setback law because the duplex on Lot 1 was grandfathered in and it was as if the first one was invisible.
“The plan for Lot 2 shows they are meeting the required setback because it only shows that lot individually instead of in the context of the building next door,” Ruiz said. “It’s a combination of mistakes and misrepresentations, but the city erred in not looking closer at the survey, which was not the best survey, and that’s how we ended up with the buildings so close.”
A stop work order has been placed on the new, nearly completed duplex and corrective construction measures requested, but city and developer are at an impasse and expect to go to court.
Russell said the city must be more vigilant.
“Those employees who approved some of these specific violations are no longer with the city or are no longer in charge of reviewing plans,” he said.
Ruiz is hiring a building and zoning quality control manager to oversee Neighborhood Conservation District plans and construction.
“We need to cross our T’s and dot our I’s on every permit,” Ruiz said. “We’re providing better training for our team so these situations won’t happen again.”
While Meyer will keep fighting, Chandler is ready to say goodbye to her lifelong home. It took her a year to get the city to post a No Dumping sign across the street, which had become a trash pile of construction materials and is still filled with litter.
“I’m thinking about North Carolina,” she said. “Atlanta would be nice.”