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.

The next day Comras was ordered to demolish the nose within seven days or the city would revoke the building permit, cut electrical service to the construction site, and order workers off the property.

Helfman responded in writing with a blistering attack on the city's "perplexing and confusing" decisions, which could have no "conceivable purpose...other than to intentionally delay the project." The city, Helfman says, is frightened it may have made a mistake, but even if that's true, it is not the fault of the developer, who nevertheless has had to pay for the delays.

"My clients have used the system to help themselves," Helfman almost shouts over the telephone. "They have gotten permits every step of the way, and my advice has been to follow every goddamn one of them. If something is to your benefit, use it A but follow the rules."

However, following the rules, and even bending them your way with a little gentle persuasion, wasn't working this time. Helfman was irritated. He didn't know exactly what had prompted the city's new get-tough attitude, but he suspected the NET office's vague reference to "complaints from area residents" could be reduced to one name: Richard Peacock.

The developers' squabble escalated into full combat with a little push from the pesky Coconut Grove Civic Club. The club had viewed Peacock's parking waiver as a threat to the Grove's Parking Trust Fund, which had the practical effect of limiting development because it required new buildings to provide on-site parking. When the fund was created in 1993, existing businesses had 1000 fewer spaces than the city required. They were allowed to buy mythical spaces from the fund, which would later be used to build a parking structure.

Peacock had been allowed 62 fund spaces as part of his plan to renovate Grove Calloway's. But instead of being renovated, the building had been torn down. Now Peacock had new plans -- the ones Carnesella described with such enthusiasm -- and the obvious question was this: With the old building gone and a new project envisioned, was Peacock still entitled to his 62 spaces? The city decided it had no provision for taking back parking spaces (even though Peacock was behind in his payments to the fund). This opened the possibility that anyone could tear down a building, put up a new one, and avoid providing on-site parking. "The parking fund is a hot issue," says Christina Abrams. "If [the Peacock spaces] were allowed, it would apply all over the Grove, and that would be a problem."

Last November the Civic Club attacked Peacock's waiver by appealing to the city's zoning board. But Peacock hired respected land-use attorney Stanley Price, who convinced a court that the club had no right to appeal because it was not a nearby neighbor of the property. The new Spec's building, however, was right next door. The company hired an attorney to pursue its own appeal against Peacock. When the city told Spec's the deadline to appeal had passed, Spec's attorney took the city to court. That case will be heard in March, and while the parking issue remains unresolved, Peacock will be unlikely to find a tenant for anything he might build.

Three days before Christmas, Peacock responded by piling on with the city regarding Spec's nose. Through his attorney, he requested that the city hold a formal zoning appeal hearing about the subject. Now both projects were hopelessly tied up in red tape. Mortgage payments, contractors' bills, and attorneys' fees were going up much faster than staircases and umbrellas.

On the Friday before Christmas, Christina Abrams had to leave her holiday office party for a hastily called meeting at city hall. Stephen Helfman had rattled enough political cages that the nose controversy had reached the ears of City Manager Cesar Odio. The planning, building, and zoning staff, Assistant City Attorney Joel Maxwell, and Abrams and an inspector from her office met with Odio while Helfman waited outside for a chance to argue his client's case.

According to three sources who attended the meeting, Odio was not very happy about the city's mistakes. This was another example of Grove developers outmaneuvering the city, a disgusted Odio said, according to one participant. The oversights in reviewing the plans were particularly frustrating. When one official told Odio that a city ordinance required architects to follow the rules even when city staff makes a mistake, Odio reportedly shot back: "If that is the case, why do we need a planning department?" (Odio did not return calls for comment.)

Maxwell, the assistant city attorney, surprised some at the table by saying the city had little hope of defending the order to tear down the nose should Helfman take them to court. Withdrawing a building permit would be difficult, Maxwell thought, according to two sources at the meeting. "He was advising us left and right to fold up and let them do what they wanted to do," recalls one of those sources. (Maxwell declined to comment on any issue concerning the Comras property.)

But department head Sergio Rodriguez and other officials pointed out that the city code clearly had been violated because the old Kennedy building had been dramatically altered as it was transformed into the Spec's nose. Rodriguez also noted that there was no appeal of the code. In effect the city would be agreeing to an illegal act. "We discussed that Comras had changed the building so much it was not what had been approved," Rodriguez recounts. "My position was [the nose] had to be demolished."

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