Coconut Grove

City agency’s sale of Coconut Grove public parking garage to developer raises hackles

Built 15 years ago, the city of Miami’s Oak Avenue parking garage was meant to bolster surrounding Coconut Grove businesses, but as the village went into a long decline, half its 402 spaces sat unused most days.

Now, amid a roaring Grove revival that’s drawing crowds of workers, visitors and customers to new offices, shops and restaurants — and boosting demand for parking — an unusual decision by the city parking authority to sell the publicly owned garage to a developer is raising a ruckus among some of its neighbors, who question why the agency would unload a valuable public asset just as it seems to be most needed.

Even though the sale has not closed, the Miami Parking Authority, which has never before sold one of its garages, last month abruptly shut the Oak Avenue facility to all but monthly users, contradicting public assurances by its officials and the buyer, developer David Martin, that it would remain open for daily public use.

“This whole things stinks,” said Robert Levine, an attorney who says he just spent millions of dollars to convert a long-abandoned restaurant site into a gleaming, environmentally friendly legal- and conflict-resolution center in part because of the availability of affordable public parking next door for his clients and visitors. “This is a complete breach of the public trust. Everyone up and down the street is infuriated.”

Facing an outcry, the MPA is now saying that the garage will be reopened for public use and called the closure “a mistake.” But its chief executive, Art Noriega, also said there is no written guarantee from Martin to that effect, and he added that he doesn’t intend to seek one.

“He is overpaying for the garage,” Noriega said. “It doesn’t make sense to put that restriction on him.”

The mostly autonomous parking authority struck a deal this summer to sell the garage for $16 million to Martin’s Terra Development, which is building two massive uber-luxury condo projects in the Grove, including a three-tower complex across the street from the garage, on the site of the Coconut Grove Bank.

The sale agreement, which though advertised and discussed in public meetings went almost publicly unnoticed, came after what Noriega says was an unsolicited offer from Martin. The authority then publicly solicited bids, but discarded two slightly higher offers from Martin’s competitors because, Noriega said, they could not match Terra’s financials.

“The sale numbers are practically the same,” Noriega said. “David came to us first. So I told my board, ‘I’m recommending Terra because I think it’s just the right thing to do.’”

Noriega defends the decision to sell, citing a 2011 study that concluded the Grove garage was “underperforming’’ — meaning it rarely got used near capacity. He said proceeds from the sale will help the MPA build two planned new garages in other areas of the Grove where they’re more needed, though he concedes those are still years away.

Moreover, he said, the area of the Grove where the Oak Street garage sits is “grossly oversupplied” with parking. Three garages with hundreds of spaces each sit within two blocks of the city garage at Mayfair and CocoWalk, he noted.

Martin says he approached Noriega at first to lease spaces in the garage for his construction workers and Grove Bank employees who were losing their parking as construction on the project began. But he said he realized the garage, which is lined with shops at street level, had good redevelopment potential, and proposed buying it outright.

Martin plans to eventually remove a floor of parking and convert it to offices, while upscaling the shops. But Martin insisted that public parking will remain because he needs the revenue to make his project work.

“It’s not like this parking is going away. I need it to be available to the public,” Martin said. “We want the success of all the businesses in the Grove. I was raised in the Grove, I have my headquarters here and I’m a stakeholder. I care about this community.”

Critics of the deal say they aren’t buying it. Without written conditions attached to the sale contract or the property deed, Levine said, verbal assurances have little worth.

“David Martin can say one thing and do another,” Levine said. “There’s zero protection for the public.”

The sale has also raised complaints from prominent advertising and marketing exective Bruce Turkel and architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, principal of Arquitectonica, a giant international firm based in the Grove. Both own buildings directly across the street from the garage and rely on it for client use and, in Turkel’s case, for employees.

Arquitectonica’s modestly scaled building was constructed without parking under code provisions that encourage development of sustainable, pedestrian-friendly buildings fitting the Grove’s village scale. But that urban vision is dependent on availability of centralized parking, and the Oak Street garage is a key ingredient, Fort-Brescia noted.

“The concept of the garage was visionary,” he said. “The hub garage allows the development of smaller buildings over time. But there has to be patience for that to happen.”

What happened at the garage last month hardly inspires confidence, critics of the deal say. The garage was closed to daily users because the MPA allowed Martin to fill it with construction workers and Grove Bank employees.

A sign went up allowing only monthly customers, and others seeking to park in the garage were turned away by attendants and told to park on the street, where open spaces are often scarce — in part because Martin’s construction workers are filling many of them. Business owners like Fort-Brescia who sought to rent monthly spots say they were told there was no more space available at the formerly half-empty garage.

That Noriega was able to quickly fill the garage belies his contention that there’s insufficient demand for parking, critics say. They say the 2011 report Noriega relied on is out of date because it was done at a time when the Grove was struggling economically, and cricitize the agency’s failure to carry out an analysis of future parking needs before agreeing to sell.

And they say Noriega’s suggestion that people can always park in private garages is disingenuous.

They note Mayfair, a former shopping mall which has been almost fully converted to office use, has been gradually filling spaces with employees of its new tenants, and there’s no guarantee spaces will remain available long term. Mayfair’s daily rates are also about four times that of the public garage, where the cost to park runs about $1 an hour and is capped at $5.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a longtime MPA critic who once unsuccesfully pushed to have the city take over the agency but has not direct authority over it, blames the flap on what he said is its leadership’s focus on revenue while failing to understand that it exists primarily to provide a public service.

“They don’t understand that their mission is to provide parking, not to make money,” Regalado said.

Moreover, Regalado said, MPA plans to build garages by City Hall and at the Coconut Grove Playhouse are iffy and don’t help anyone now. “Merchants need the customers now, and not two years from now,” he said.

In an effort to resolve the issue, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents the Grove, summoned Martin, Noriega, Turkel and Fort-Brescia to a private meeting in his office late Friday afternoon. In an interview before the meeting, Sarnoff said it was an error for the parking authority to sell the garage without a ready replacement in the vicinity.

While there was no final deal, Fort-Brescia said afterwards, participants made progress on a possible compromise that would ensure the requisite number of parking spaces remain available for public use in the Oak Street garage after the sale, with that proportion to be determined by a study.

But he stressed the compromise has to work for everyone in the neighborhood, not just those at the meeting, and said more local stakeholders should be invited to participate in crafting a deal.

“I want a solution for everyone that’s affected by this, not just us,” Fort-Brescia said.