NORTH DADE – Longtime homeowners in a quiet community of unincorporated North Central Miami-Dade County are locked in battle with well-monied developers for what they say is the soul and future of their neighborhood.At the center of thedispute is the former Westview Golf Course that straddled Northwest 119th Street between Northwest 22nd and 27th avenues.
First started in 1959 as a country club where Jews could escape the bigotry that kept them out of the county’s older country clubs, Westview was surrounded by single family homes on large lots on both sides of 119th Street. The country club closed in May 2011, when the property was bought for $5 million by developers intent on keeping it as a golf facility, but that didn’t work out.
The course has fallen into such disrepair that driving on the winding, tranquil streets gives the impression of stumbling upon a wildlife preserve marked by the sounds of birds and insects. But the homes and residents remain. Driving along West Golf Drive and East Golf Drive, one can see children on scooters and bicycles and retirees mowing well-manicured lawns. Many of the homeowners in this tightly-knit neighborhood have lived here for decades.
Now there is a new neighbor, Rosal Westview LLC, the most recent buyer of the 198-acre property. Robert Saland of Rosal Westview, who describes himself as a long time member of the Westview Country Club who “stayed on until the end,” said his company initially considered building more homes on the former golf course. The property was zoned for more than 2,000 residential and multi-family units, he said.
His umbrella company, Landmark Corporation, is no stranger to home building. “Affordable housing is our bread and butter,” he said. But his company came up with “a better use for the area.” According to the Golf Park Homeowners Association, that means building warehouses. The HOA was created in February 2012 as a direct response to the project.
Robert Kemp, who said he has owned his home facing the golf course for almost 40 years, said he contacted other homeowner associations in the immediate area and obtained almost 700 signatures on a petition opposing the proposal to build what he and others say will be a glut of warehouses in their community.
Creating a warehouse district “is not the right thing for a residential neighborhood,” said Kemp.Rosal Westview’s project seeks to amend Miami-Dade County’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan (CDMP) and change the zoning for the property. Mark Woerner, assistant director of planning for Miami-Dade, said the CDMP is a “compilation of goals and policies that relate to the physical development of the county.”
The process for amending the Plan is lengthy, with progress measured in months. It is labor-intensive, requiring reports, analyses, public hearings and other procedures. It is also expensive, determined by the acreage: The fee for the Westview application was around $120,000.
Prior to the Rosal Westview purchase, the property was zoned for parks and recreation use. The new proposal calls for rezoning to industrial use. Tucker Gibbs, an attorney working with the homeowners, said during an interview on the WPBT-Channel 2 Issues program inNovember that he had “never seen anything like this before – from least to most intense.”
“This is a travesty. It wouldn’t happen anywhere else in Dade County – industrial next to residential community,” Gibbs said.Leroy Jones, who said he has owned his home in the area for more than 25 years, is president of the Little River Farm Homeowners Association. He agrees with Gibbs. “You can’t dump industrial in a residential area,” he said.
Rosal Westview disagrees with that assertion. “We don’t like to use the word ‘warehouse,’” said Saland, who insists that the plan is to build “a modern-day business park.” He said that only a quarter of the eight million square feet of property will be built on and 400,000 square feet of that will be retail. The remaining 1.6 million square feet will be used for a business park with retail space on the north and south ends of the property.
Pearline Rice Smith, president of the Tri-Community Homeowners’ Association, a group of residents who live on the north side of the property, is worried about the pollution that would come from having warehouses so close to where she and her husband, both retired, live. “I have a major concern with health issues,” said Smith. She would like the area to be kept “peaceful and quiet.”
Saland said his plan restricts all manufacturing use so pollution is “a non-factor” and also calls for the “least intense industrial” uses. Ideally, Rosal Westview envisions opportunities for e-commerce-related businesses such as Amazon.com, where “products will come in and come out.”
But, for that to happen, trucks must come and go. Gregory Samms, a member of the Golf Park HOA, appeared with Gibbs on Issues. During that interview, Samms cited a truck study that predicted that “464 trucks daily” would be coming and going into the area “from 6 a.m. 9 p.m.,” with an additional automobile traffic volume of 10,000 cars.
A transportation analysis commissioned by Rosal Westview and prepared by Cathy Sweetapple and Associates last year projected the daily traffic volume for what will be the Westview Business Park and Shopping Center at 10,208.Also, according to a recent study by Carla Trax of the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at University of Southern California, “port, rail and warehouse communities bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to air pollution from goods movement activity.”
“For residents in these areas, exposure to air pollution from diesel exhaust and particulate matter is a daily concern,” Trax wrote in her report. She concluded that an increase of trucks in residential areas has a negative impact “by causing traffic congestion, safety issues, pavement damage, noise, and air pollution.”
Homeowners who live near the Westview property say that is the focus of their concern, not development as such. “We’re okay with retail,” said Jones. He and other residents say they would not mind an Aventura Mall type of project.
Kemp and other homeowners have drawn up a list of preferred retail options. The list includes popular national chains such as Chiptolte, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Chili’s, Bone Fish Grill, Subway’s and Quizno’s. Dry cleaners, supermarkets, copy stores, veterinarians, doctors and a farmer’s market are also desirable.
Saland recognized a need for such businesses when he acknowledged in an interview that the area “doesn’t have anything anywhere nearby” like a supermarket. He is hoping that Rosal Westview can attract a Publix or a Winn Dixie to anchor the planned retail space. The developers, whoinclude Francisco Rojo and Brian McDonough, along with Saland, insist they care about the homeowners.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the neighbors. Nothing will be out there facing the neighbors,” Saland said of the proposed industrial buildings. “The trucks will not be using either East or West Golf drives.”
All business park and warehouse traffic will enter primarily on 119th Street, with another access point to be built on a proposed 117th Street from Northwest 22nd Avenue. Rosal Westview will pay to build this new road. “It’s our property so we’ll pay for it,” he said.
Saland, who conceded that none of the principals involved with Rosal Westview live near the property, said the concerns of the homeowners are important. “I will guarantee the neighbors: What they see will be nicer than what they are looking at now,” he said. He pointed to a cleanup of the vacant golf course that his company has been conducting, including removal of hundreds of old tires that have been dumped on the property.
Still, for homeowners such as Kemp, Jones, Smith and Samms, there is a much bigger concern. During their appearance on Channel 2’s Issues, Gibbs and Samms expressed the feeling shared by many in the community — that the very fabric of their neighborhood is being sacrificed to developers by politicians because it is assumed that the residents are “not politically astute enough” to know what is happening or how to fight it, said Samms.
First-term County Commissioner Jean Monestime, whose District 2 includes Westview, was unavailable for an interview but his office emailed a written statement. Monestime also set out his position in a letter to the editor which was previously published.
The commissioner described the Westview property as “the largest parcel of undeveloped land in an urban area in Miami-Dade County and has the potential to create more than 3,000 jobs.”
Monestime said he pushed the developer to limit the proposed warehousing space to 700,000 square feet instead of the two million square feet originally requested. The developer also agreed to “shield” neighboring homes “so they cannot easily see or hear the activities in the new commercial and industrial development.”
“The landowner must build a miles-long biking and jogging trail and a fully developed five-acre park for the community. The developer is also responsible for amenities such as road beautification and traffic calming devices,” Monestime said.
The proposed development will “bring in more than $300 million in new investment to a community that has been overlooked,” he added, without giving details.
“My position has always been that the developer be sensitive to the needs of the area residents and respect their right to the peaceful enjoyment of their community,” Monestime said. “When it comes to the jobs this project will generate, the plan must ensure local residents are considered first and minority and small businesses are given an opportunity to participate.”
Monestime said Rosal Westview “proposed building a retail and business center with shops and restaurants as well as a movie studio as part of this development.”
However, Jeff Bercow, attorney for Rosal Westview, said that the possibility of having a movie studio being included in plans for Westview “haven’t progressed beyond the discussion stage.”
Many of the homeowners have two things in common. They are African American and they have been living in the neighborhood for many years. For them, promises of economic boom times as the benefit of redevelopment bring one word to mind: Overtown.
That mainly black community of homeowners and business owners in downtown Miami with good schools and social stability was virtually destroyed when Interstate 95 was built over and through the very heart of the neighborhood. Almost a half century later “Overtown still hasn’t recovered,” said Smith.
The Westview impasse does not look like it will be resolved soon. Kemp said a core team comprising HOA presidents and lawyers took part in meetings with officials from Rosal Westview officials and Monestime’s office for at least the past year.
“These meetings were fair and allowed each side to openly express ideas and to share our concerns,” Kemp said.The concerns of homeowners were also expressed at County Commission meetings.However, their main demand, that warehouses not be included in the project, was ignored when the commission on Dec. 4 approved Rosal Westview’s application for a change in the land use despite protests from Samms and Gibbs. A zoning hearing is expected to follow but county zoning officials said no paperwork had been filed as of Tuesday.
The homeowners have responded by filing a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court seeking to have the project declared illegal and also requesting that any work be halted until the issue is resolved. They have also filed an administrative challenge with the county against the master plan change.
“The homeowner’s associations have decided to explore all of our options, including legal action. The filings were made primarily by Golf Park, Little River Farms and Tri-Community homeowners associations,” Kemp said.
Bercow, the Rosal Westview attorney, dismissed such moves. “I do not believe that either lawsuit has merit,” he said.Kemp sees the Westview dispute as part of a bigger struggle that all homeowners can face, with similar situations playing out right now in the West Grove neighborhood of Coconut Grove and Kendale Lakes. “Do you want this to happen to your neighborhood?” he said.“It’s us today, you tomorrow,” added Jennifer Walker, also of the Golf Park HOA.