Coral Gables

Coral Gables postpones decision on trolley-dispute settlement

After hours of debate that at times grew tense on the dais, the Coral Gables City Commission decided Tuesday to send a proposed settlement of a lawsuit back to the negotiating table after city staff raised issues with building a trolley depot underneath a proposed new 13-story condo tower near the Village of Merrick Park.

City attorney Craig Leen had presented the settlement with Henry Torres, the developer who wants to build the project, for commissioners to approve. The settlement called for the developer to pay the city about $3.5 million in legal fees and fees associated with permitting for the project.

But on Monday, Interim City Manager Carmen Olazabal sent commissioners a memo detailing city staff’s concerns with the proposed tower and trolley depot, including raising issues over the building’s height, the number of planned units and the amount of parking — all of which exceed city regulations.

She also questioned whether construction of the 13-story, 283-unit condo tower, at 301 Altara Ave., would interrupt trolley service.

“We have numerous unresolved issues that I am concerned will not fully resolve this complex matter,” she wrote.

Leen maintained that accepting the settlement, which he negotiated with the developer’s attorneys, was the best case scenario for the city because it would create a home for the city’s trolleys within city limits, keep the trolley depot out of the West Grove, where it originally was intended to go, and stave off the threat of years of civil rights lawsuits.

Last year, West Grove residents filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration, contending that by building the depot in their neighborhood — and not providing service to them — the cities of Miami, Coral Gables and Miami-Dade County violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under the act, Title VI prohibits discrimination of transportation projects based on race, color or national origin and applies to every federal dollar spent.

Federal funds from the stimulus package were used to purchase the trolleys or expand the trolley routes.

The FTA sided with the residents, saying the three municipalities — the Gables, the Grove and the county, which administered the federal stimulus money — did not adhere to the landmark civil rights law.

“We are in danger of this never getting built and being sued for millions of dollars over years,” Leen said. “There is a Federal Transit Administration finding that we violated the Civil Rights Act.”

The dispute stems from a land swap Coral Gables made with the city of Miami a few years ago. Under the swap, Coral Gables agreed to exchange land where its trolley existing garage sits next to Merrick Park so Torres could build luxury high-rise condos. Torres and his company, Astor Development, then found land for a new garage in Miami's West Grove. After Miami planning officials signed off on it — without a public hearing — residents became incensed.

They sued the city of Miami, charging the city’s approval of the trolley depot, posted online, was too difficult to discover. Coral Gables then sued the developer, contending the depot, built in the 3300 block of Douglas Road, violated Miami’s zoning code. The developer countersued, charging the Gables didn’t live up to its contractual obligations.

The court had suspended the Gables lawsuit for 60 days, starting in May 31, to allow the parties to settle. Torres, who is the president of the parent company of the trolley company, Astor Trolley, flatly told the commission Tuesday that he has no intention of asking the court for more time.

“I have not intention of extending this,” he said.

Now, the city and the developer will try to come up with a deal during the next week.

“The fact is in we’re in a box here,” said Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. “There are a lot of issues here.”

During public comments, Grove resident Linda Williams told the commission she supported the settlement as it was written.

“Coconut Grove never infringed upon Coral Gables,” she said. “We don’t want this project to continue to infringe upon us.”

Others rejected the proposed building.

“It may be fair to the residents of Coconut Grove. It’s incredibly fair and generous to Astor,” said resident Philip Rinaldi. “But it is certainly not fair to the residents of Coral Gables.”

It was clear Tuesday that the city has no intention of moving into the finished, empty trolley depot in the West Grove. West Grove residents have made it clear they want Astor to make sure the facility be repurposed for use as a community center or something similar.

In the meantime, Astor and the residents are attempting to mediate a settlement.