Wasted Space

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

Nine years after purchasing the land, the owners pitched one last development idea: a parking lot. The Department of Off-Street Parking rejected the plan, leaving the owners frustrated and willing to sell.

Michael Goldstein is a fitness nut. That fact, more than his lifetime spent in Coconut Grove, has made him an environmentalist. "I run a lot, usually on the same path through the Grove," says the 28-year-old Ransom Everglades High School alumnus. "Over the years, I noticed a significant change in the community. A lot of development, a lot of concrete. Every time a tree would come down, literally it was like they took a rib from my chest. I don't know why, but it gave me such anger and sadness, and a level of frustration and hopelessness."

Earning a law degree from the University of Miami, he found hope. He joined (and soon became president of) the zealous zoning activists collectively known as the Coconut Grove Civic Club. He fought against the development of Virginia Key. Now he is concentrating on Commodore Bay. "This is the kind of stuff that is important to me," Goldstein says. "I am an inveterate, unabashed, unrepentant tree hugger. This is what's important to me. This is how I spend my time."

Goldstein knew the Commodore Bay owners from his frequent battles against the development. As their proposals were shot down one after the other, he saw in their frustration an opportunity to save the property. They weren't doing anything with the land, so why not sell it to someone who would preserve the trees and the open space? Why not sell it to the city so it could become a park?

On a November day in 1994, the idealistic lawyer met Kenneth Treister for lunch at Greenstreet Cafe, across Main Highway from the disputed property. Goldstein asked Treister if he would be amenable to the idea of a park on his property. Treister said he was. Goldstein asked Treister if he would be willing to sell the property to the public to achieve that end. Treister said he was. Granted a third yes after asking whether the owners would reimburse him for the costs of searching out a buyer (although not pay him anything more for his services), Goldstein set out to make it happen.

"Michael Goldstein cares about the community and he is active in the community," says Treister's partner Howard Scharlin. "He's a bright young man. He is not our attorney, but from our point of view, his personal desires for this property are not inconsistent with what would be a good deal for us."

Flying off to Tallahassee on the owners' nickel, Goldstein lobbied bureaucrats in several state agencies. The land, he argued, was too valuable and time was too short to let its purchase be anything other than a priority. On June 27, 1995, Goldstein secured a commitment from the state for half the cost of the purchase, plus a loan to the city on very favorable repayment terms.

Goldstein knew of a Metro-Dade fund dedicated to the purchase of park land, so he also made a pitch to the county officials who oversee the fund. "As concrete replaces canopy," he wrote in a persuasive letter to the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, "the name itself, 'Coconut Grove,' may very well become a bittersweet and ironic reminder of what this village once was." Sure enough, county officials were in for ten percent of the property's cost.

All this Goldstein presented to city commissioners last July. He even mentioned the approximately $500,000 that sits in the Bayside Agreement trust fund, the money J.L. Plummer had promised for Commodore Bay.

And as the commissioners thanked Goldstein for his efforts and slapped him on the back, the first fateful letters were already being typed.

"The day after Michael Goldstein's presentation, Kenneth Treister sent a letter to the city saying the deal was off," says Joseph Fleming, one of three outside counsel representing the city in the Commodore Bay matter. "I told him, 'Michael, I think you are being played for this one, just like Linda Dann was.'" (Fleming was referring to an earlier effort by Dann, one of the parents at St. Stephen's church, to gather state money to purchase the property. "I worked my butt off for several years to get them to sell, then at the last minute they changed their minds," Dann says today, her words laced with bitterness. "Then they just jerked the rug out from under us. They filed a whole bunch of lawsuits, including one in which they accused me of collaborating with Monty Trainer. I don't even know Monty Trainer.")

The owners' attorney, renowned land-use lawyer Toby Prince Brigham, dashed off a letter as well. "The willingness of the city to resolve the matter is a never-ending illusion," Brigham wrote in a July 25 missive to another of the city's trio of attorneys, Gary Held. "It seems to me your suggestions for further negotiation are a snare and a delusion. We can see no reason to continue further negotiations with the city. We deem them concluded."

Held snapped back in a letter dated August 4. "You claim illusion, snare, and delusion on the part of the city, but those same words could describe how my clients feel about yours following the years of litigation and your letter to me."

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