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.

Civic activists were appalled, but by the time city officials realized they had overlooked changes in Peacock's revised plans, it was too late. Their only legal recourse was to issue permits for the new building as it existed; the old one was long gone. Today there is nothing but dirt. After several businesses failed on the site, the city last year forced Peacock to demolish what remained.

In February 1994, Stephen Helfman, a Comras attorney, made a trip to the public works department's executive offices on NW Second Street in downtown Miami. Because his clients were building in Coconut Grove, which is designated as a protected area, a special design permit had been required. But the department's chief civil engineer, Leonard Helmers, had refused to approve the permit. Helmers had taken one look at the size of the Comras project and decided the city would need wider sidewalks to accommodate the anticipated crowds of shoppers. Unfortunately, the nose presented a problem; it stuck out into the public right of way, just as it had when it was part of the old Kennedy Studios. But a much larger building would mean many more people. So Helmers withheld approval.

Attorney Helfman, on Comras's behalf, went to see Jim Kay, who is deputy director of the public works department. In the development world, Helfman is a big gun; his firm spends most of its time representing cities. Helfman himself is the city attorney for Key Biscayne and Miramar, and deputy city attorney in Bal Harbour and Homestead. "I am very familiar with right-of-way issues and encroachments," Helfman says confidently.

The attorney had a request. "He was nice about it," remembers Kay, who has dealt with Helfman often. "Helfman said, 'We have a development going here and we would like to keep the old Kennedy Studios and make a few modifications to it, maybe a few windows.' I thought about it and I said, 'Okay, as long as you're not doing anything major to it, we will let you keep [the old building] out there.'" Comras, however, would have to sign an agreement with the city to give up the property if the city ever needed it. Then Kay formally overruled Helmers and granted Comras a waiver from the city's right-of-way regulations. But Kay, it turns out, never looked at the actual building plans. And he says Helfman did not mention that nearly all of the old Kennedy building would be demolished, an alteration so substantial that granting a waiver should have been impossible. (Certain existing buildings that intrude upon the public right of way can be "grandfathered" into a new project if the existing structure is not altered. Otherwise it must be removed.)

Helfman had earned his money -- he had secured for his clients the coveted design permit. Comras then began the more routine process of obtaining actual building permits. In June a city bureaucrat apparently missed the developer's demolition plan, which showed all but one wall of the old Kennedy building being knocked down. And in October, when Comras submitted a revised set of plans, Lourdes Slazyk, the city planner who reviewed them for design changes, admits she overlooked a proposed door on the second floor that could have turned the roof of the nose into a deck, which could violate the city's zoning ordinance.

Two weeks before Christmas, Bruno Carnesella went to the Coconut Grove NET office and complained about the Comras construction. Office director Christina Abrams remembers Carnesella saying, "Comras has knocked down the whole [Kennedy] building. How can they have grandfather status when the building is gone?" Some weeks earlier, code enforcement officer Bryan Harms had noticed the Kennedy Studios building being demolished. He called downtown with disturbing news: The city apparently had approved plans that would violate its own code. But the information, Harms says, stirred little interest until Carnesella made his complaint. Carnesella, though, scoffs at the idea that he could make the city spring into action. "This thing exploded and now everyone say this is Bruno," he protests. "If I had this kind of clout, I would be the happiest man in town."

On December 15, the nose situation came up at a regular meeting of members of the planning, building, and zoning department held by Sergio Rodriguez, the department's director. The 9:00 a.m. gathering had worn on till noon, and Rodriguez sprang for pizza to keep the officials, who were becoming increasingly nervous as the nose controversy rose toward the city manager's office, from using hunger as an excuse to leave the room. When Rodriguez asked for a review of the city's actions, someone at the table called it a "comedy of errors."

According to three participants, it was clear there was enough blame to go around: The building division missed the demolition, which violated both the South Florida Building Code and the public works section of the city code, Jim Kay's waiver notwithstanding. In addition the design permit was transgressed when the city's Lourdes Slazyk missed the new door to the nose's proposed deck. "The conclusion was there were probably omissions in the way we reviewed the plans," Rodriguez admits. "As far as I was concerned, if there were mistakes, we must uphold the law." The group decided that the public works department would lead the offensive against Comras: The building permit would have to be rescinded and the nose torn down.

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