marc_sarnoff_3.jpgCOCONUT GROVE — Don’t tell West Grove residents that it’s impossible to fight city hall; they’re currently doing battle with two of them. Assisted by pro bono lawyers, University of Miami professors and the local Village Council, the residents are suing the city of Miami over a Coral Gables trolley garage that is being built in Miami’s historically black Coconut Grove community.

Residents say the new facility will bring pollution and traffic congestion and create unsafe conditions for pedestrians and children who live in the community.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 31 on behalf of three residents and a church located near the trolley garage, asks for an emergency hearing to stop construction. It outlines a series of procedural and zoning issues which it argues Miami should have addressed before giving the green light for Astor Development to begin building.  

“It is a compelling, important thing — a bad thing — that is happening to the people in the Grove,” said Philip Freidin, one of three lawyers who filed the complaint.

Although Coral Gables is not named in the suit, some residents accuse that city of collaborating with Astor to cut a deal that benefits the developer and Coral Gables’ tax base but does nothing for the city of Miami and Grove residents, said Renita Ross Samuels-Dixon, a member of the Coconut Grove Village Council.

The council recently issued a non-binding-resolution condemning the trolley garage project.

“My concern: infrastructure and impact fees,” said Samuels-Dixon, who is a Grove resident. “If it is allowed, it is a government entity. They don’t have to pay anything.”

“This project is so egregious, so wrong, that there is no one who can credibly stand up and say that it is good for Coconut Grove,” said Pierre Sands, president of the Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association.

The trolley garage currently is located across the street from Coral Gables High School. Astor, which wants to build a luxury mixed-use complex at that site, received permission from the Gables to do so on condition that it found another location for the trolley garage.

Astor decided on a property outside of the city — on the east side of U.S. 1 in the black Grove community.
A small section of Coral Gables also is located there.

“Astor purchased it and our zoning department said they could build,” Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said at a Jan. 28 public hearing he called to air the issue with homeowners.

Sarnoff represents Coconut Grove on the commission. During the meeting, an environmental consultant hired by Miami told residents the parking garage, which also will allow light repairs, does not pose a health threat and would not significantly increase the amount of noise in the neighborhood. 

For his part, Sarnoff said he suggested the developer make $200,000 in improvements at Armbrister Park for a new football field, an effort to give residents “a community benefit.” He said he also encouraged he developer to meet with homeowners.

“They kept touting it as a state-of-art facility that will be a real boon to the community, with a garage of Bahamian architecture,” Sands said of the meetings that began in 2011. “What were we supposed to say?  ‘Hallelujah, we are going to get a building that looks like Bahamian architecture?’”

Instead, the group told Astor not to build the garage, Sands said.

Despite the group’s protests, construction began in December, much to the dismay of nearby homeowners.

“I really don’t like it; nobody likes it,” said Diane Prophet, 55, who lives on Oak Avenue, across from the garage site. “I thought that something else would be better there, like a convenience store,” said Prophet, who sat outside recently watching the building take shape on Douglas Road between Oak and Frow avenues.

Demonstrators have held two protests at the site, including one on Saturday.