Wasted Space

This waterfront plot in Coconut Grove isn't park land,it's a factory. A lawsuit factory.

The hugs were a good sign. So were the back slaps and handshakes that followed Michael Goldstein's presentation to the Miami City Commission last July. In ten short minutes on that summer morning, the environmental lawyer and activist had solved a twelve-year legal puzzle. Thanks to his work, it looked as if a piece of cherished Coconut Grove property that once was slated for massive development would finally become a public park.

Armed with posters and charts and speaking with the confidence of a poker player holding four aces, Goldstein had explained to commissioners that the owners were willing to sell the property. He had explained how, after nearly a year of lobbying on his part, the state and the county were prepared to pony up more than half the purchase price, whatever it might be. Tapping his finger on the podium, he had triumphantly announced that the state was even willing to loan the city the rest of the money A at the very appealing interest rate of exactly zero percent for the first five years of the loan.

The commissioners jockeyed to applaud Goldstein's efforts. Miller Dawkins recited an impromptu ode to green space. Victor De Yurre, who was facing a tough re-election battle, asked to lead the sale negotiations. He knew a purchase would win him votes and quash the threat of more lawsuits from the property owners, a trio of developers known for their litigiousness. "People were congratulating me and slapping me on the back," Goldstein recalls. "It certainly felt like a victory."

Precisely what the young lawyer had won, though, was unclear. The commissioners appeared to have approved a motion to buy the property and turn it into a park. But what they actually passed was in fact so fuzzy that eight months later the city attorney's office has not deciphered the motion well enough to frame it in precise legal language. The owners' attorneys, in the meantime, have broken off negotiations, the attorneys for the city having made it known that they refuse to close a deal without a written promise in advance that they won't be sued. Even the city commissioners have been muzzled, lest their comments come back to haunt them in court.

Unless the stalemate ends soon, warns Michael Goldstein, lawsuits will indeed follow, delaying yet again the sale of Commodore Bay. "I think we are so close and that is why it is so frustrating," Goldstein groans. "It is such a wonderful opportunity. All the money is there and we've come so far, and it is a way to end all the litigation."

He sighs at the thought that his work might come to nothing. "Commodore Bay is like a beautiful animal," he ventures. "Maybe like a majestic lion. It is beautiful to look at, but on the other hand it chews up a lot of people."

Bubba Red stands at the shore of Biscayne Bay, squinting into the noon sun, his dark eyes shaded by a weathered Yankees cap. A self-confessed crack addict, he lives on the Commodore Bay property full-time. Raising a Marlboro as if it were a pointer, he sweeps the glowing cigarette across the panorama to convey the majesty of the view, then turns 180 degrees to face a stand of hardwood trees and exotic grasses, and nineteen fellow homeless people. He sucks one last drag, flicks the Marlboro into the bay, and commences a guided tour of his home.

"This is the most tranquil place in the Grove," says Red, traversing the dirt path that starts where the bay meets a four-foot-tall chainlink fence separating the property from Peacock Park. To his left, Red points out, is the Barnacle, the homestead of Commodore Ralph Munroe. The early settler erected Coconut Grove's first house, referred to by some as the Plymouth Rock of South Florida, with wood recovered from a shipwreck. A well-patrolled fence keeps Red and his ilk away from the state historic site.

Farther up the path the vegetation grows denser, thick with live oak and gumbo-limbo. The entire property takes up a little more than six acres, and after a few minutes Red's short walk ends at Main Highway and a padlocked gate. Out beyond the fence is the concrete amusement park of the Grove AFuddrucker's and CocoWalk, thousands of weekend visitors. A world away from Commodore Bay's trees and shade. "It's a place where we can escape the noise and the horns of the rest of the village," Red says, patting his jacket in search of a cigarette. "It's a place where you can get away and relax your mind."

The son of a prominent Grove activist, Bubba Red has always lived in the village. He has seen it change from an artists' colony to a hippie hangout, and finally to an overgrown mall. The Grove still had a faint hippie feel to it back in 1983, when this wild property was purchased by three developers with a grand vision.

Along with partners Howard Scharlin and Gerald Katcher, Ken Treister, the architect of Mayfair, bought the parcel for three million dollars. Though the trio knew the land was zoned for single-family homes, they felt it had more potential. They wanted to build a 195-unit condo complex on top of a massive shopping center filled with stores and art galleries. There would be subsidized art studios and classes to evoke the village's past, and a 650-space parking garage to ease the Grove's growing car crunch. The property had no name, but the blueprints submitted to the city on June 15, 1984, bore the imprint Commodore Bay.

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