Every Available Square Inch

Developers in Coconut Grove have learned a couple of things about rules: They can be used to personal advantage. And they can be used as weapons.

Bruno Carnesella holds a cigar and a cell phone in one hand and a fat billfold in the other as he exits the Neighborhood Enhancement Team office in Coconut Grove, a sort of mini-city hall located in Peacock Park. The tall, debonair Italian, who left Genoa 25 years ago and came to the Grove to do business as a general contractor, follows NET office director Christina Abrams out the door. His perfectly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and stylish clothes -- white cotton windbreaker, pressed jeans, black penny loafers -- add to his continental cool, which occasionally can be broken by fits of Italian temper.

But today Carnesella is all smooth persuasion as he and Abrams walk up McFarlane Road. Carnesella is accustomed to making his point; having his hands full doesn't keep him from gesticulating for emphasis when the two stop opposite a barren lot near the corner of McFarlane and Grand Avenue. Carnesella steps into the street and sweeps his arm toward the collection of trash and weeds in an expansive gesture.

Abrams listens politely from the sidewalk as Carnesella infuses the space across the street with a vision. She has heard many rumors about what might happen to the vacant land where Grove Calloway's restaurant (and the historic Peacock House before it) used to stand. Johnny Rockets, the Fifties-style eatery, sits on the narrow corner. Behind it is Miami Subs and then Se*or Frog's Mexican Grill, each with its enclosed area on Grand and patio on McFarlane. The former Calloway's site occupies the rest of the lot, leaving a blank swath across one of the most valuable and congested commercial corners in the Grove.

The dining spots near the corner, whose single-story heights recall an era when the Grove actually resembled a village, today are being overshadowed by a growing concrete canyon. The CocoWalk and Mayfair shopping and entertainment behemoths face them on Grand. Behind the empty Calloway's site and fronting on McFarlane are the four floors of CocoView, a complex of business suites and apartments, most of which are empty.

Just to the east and facing Grand Avenue are the walls of a mammoth, three-story Spec's music store under construction by a development partnership led by the Comras Company of Miami Beach. The 34,000-square-foot structure, which will include other tenants as well, straddles the site of a former parking lot and the old Kennedy Studios, a single-story, diamond-shape building. The developers saved their new structure from becoming just another rectangular monolith by incorporating a portion of the Kennedy building into their new design -- the leading edge of the diamond, like the prow of a ship, pokes out toward Grand Avenue.

To fill in the development hole where Calloway's once operated, Carnesella is asking Abrams to imagine a relatively humble project: a series of kiosks with food and handicraft vendors around a cafe area serviced by a bar on the back side of Se*or Frog's. He has already submitted to city bureaucrats the plans for this small-scale project, on behalf of his client, Richard Peacock, scion of the pioneering Coconut Grove family and owner of the restaurant corner and the Calloway's lot.

Abrams plays a key role in the city's complicated building-approval process -- she is charged with overseeing all construction in Coconut Grove. A staff of inspectors is stationed in her office to keep a watchful eye on a project's compliance with city codes. Perhaps more critical to Carnesella are Abrams's responsibilities as a liaison to neighbors and community groups regarding developers' intentions. It would not hurt Carnesella's client to have sensitive Grove residents informed about the pedestrian-friendly, modest scale of the plan.

Despite the aggressive sales pitch, Abrams, like many city employees who have seen the plans, says she is convinced the kiosks and the brightly colored table umbrellas will never appear. According to this cynical view, Carnesella's plans are really a diversion designed simply to get the city permit procedure rolling. The true intent is to develop every available square inch of valuable commercial property. Current regulations would allow Peacock to build 18,000 square feet on the corner, which would necessarily mean a two-story building that would incorporate the existing restaurants. Abrams says she is betting that Carnesella will soon show up at the city's planning, building, and zoning department with plan "revisions" that in fact will represent something completely new: a retail project on a scale to match its prodigious neighbors.

Rumors have been circulating for months that Peacock has been talking to Blockbuster about competing with Spec's in a new store on his corner lot. Peacock does admit that one of his options is a two-story building and that he has spoken with Blockbuster and other chain stores, but no one has signed a lease. Carnesella, however, dismisses the idea of a two-story building and says he has counseled Peacock against the idea because a single tenant would have to pay an exorbitant rent if the project is to be financially feasible. City building officials still tease Carnesella by asking him when he will bring them the real plans. The joking frustrated him enough that he drafted a letter to the city guaranteeing that the plan for the kiosk plaza was the only development intention for the property. Peacock and Carnesella signed the letter, though Peacock candidly suggests he'd ignore it in a heartbeat. "Blockbuster would be better," he says. "You could pack your bags and go on vacation and you wouldn't have to worry [about the rent]."

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