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.

In any construction and permitting process, allowances must be made for revisions resulting from unforeseen problems. But critics say the City of Miami's plan-review procedures have a tendency to stretch the rules, often when it comes to approving changes after the fact, sometimes after they have literally been set in concrete. In addition, city officials can make mistakes; they might, for example, inadvertently overlook some change in a revised building plan. It is a system that relies heavily (and precariously) on the honesty of builders and developers. "When you have plans that go incrementally [through revisions], it is hard to catch everything," admits Sergio Rodriguez, director of the planning, building, and zoning department. As if those dangers weren't enough, there is also the maddening issue of interpretation -- the precise meaning of this or that phrase in a regulation. As Carnesella says with a sly smile: "I don't draft the ordinances. Go to a rabbi or a priest, they can read the Bible in 50 different ways."

The long-frustrated members of the Coconut Grove Civic Club contend that city officials too often interpret the rules in a manner favorable to developers, and that many of those officials enjoy cozy relationships with the very people they are supposed to scrutinize. "We have regulations that people are supposed to follow," says Joyce Nelson, the club's president, "but for some reason everyone wants a variance or a special exemption to build outside the zoning limits. That's what people are upset about."

Naturally, the Civic Club is not held in the highest esteem by developers, who say the city's bureaucracy is slow enough as it is; the last thing they need is a bunch of meddlesome activists. "They appeal most of the projects," Carnesella says. "The Civic Club, as a normal process, is banging the heads of everyone, which is normal in Coconut Grove."

Ever true to its mission, the Civic Club attempted to limit the potential for development on Peacock's property. It also tried to rein in the Spec's project next door. In both cases it failed. But in a novel turn of events A odd even for the iconoclastic Grove A the developers themselves have picked up where the Civic Club left off. Peacock and Comras (along with tenant Spec's) have been battling each other, using parking and building ordinances as weapons, in what has become the city's biggest zoning war in recent memory.

Spec's went to court to challenge Peacock's waiver from Coconut Grove's parking ordinance, which allows him to build on his corner lot without providing on-site parking. (Anyone who has ever been anywhere near the Grove understands that parking is a very serious issue.)

Peacock retaliated by challenging a special design permit for Comras's new building because a portion of it intrudes into the public right of way reserved for sidewalks and utilities. That portion is the pointed section of the old Kennedy Studios building jutting out toward Grand Avenue. It has come to be known as the "nose." Initial plans showed the nose being incorporated into the new building essentially intact, but after a series of revisions, large windows were added and the roof gave way to an outdoor deck. For the tenant, Spec's, the glass nose is one of the building's most attractive features.

When city officials investigated, they made an unhappy discovery: Peacock was correct. The nose of the new building did encroach on the right of way, meaning that the Comras building permit had been issued in error.

According to Peacock, the technicalities hide the true motives behind the backstabbing. Spec's went after his parking waiver, he says, because the company feared he was negotiating with Blockbuster and others. "Why would Spec's appeal my parking permit?" Peacock asks. "What do they care? They care because they don't want a Blockbuster or a Peaches there."

John Fletcher, an attorney for Spec's, claims his client was simply worried about the parking situation in Coconut Grove. But when the city in December took the extraordinary step of ordering Comras to tear down the glass nose, Spec's realized that the cost of concern for parking was perhaps too high. "What Spec's started out to do escalated into global warfare and came around and bit their landlord in the ass," says Fletcher. "That makes for a bad relationship between a landlord and tenant." The city's action brought a halt to construction, which drove up Comras's costs. Moreover, Fletcher adds, without the flashy glass nose on its new home, Spec's might no longer be interested in the building, and Comras would be stuck with a vacant, half-finished project.

Richard Peacock could just as easily have sympathized with Comras as launched an attack on the company. After all, he has had his share of problems with the city. In 1990 he opened Grove Calloway's with the understanding that it would include his family's historic Peacock House, which had stood on the McFarlane side of the Peacock property for 50 years. Preservationists and city officials agreed to the project, but no one was quite ready for the end result. All that remained of the old home was the roof, the attic, and a bit of framing. In its place stood a gaudy, loud restaurant and rum bar that bore zero resemblance to anything authentically historical.

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