Pond Scum

When Coral Gables officials see a tiny lake in the middle of their fair city, they think ... shopping mall!

In the fierce struggle to derail a proposed $275 million shopping mall that promises to transform a Coral Gables neighborhood, opponents have tried just about everything. They attacked the developer, the Rouse Company, charging that the upscale mall would have a negative impact on local businesses, traffic, and even the high school across the street.

The Taubman Company, a shopping-mall competitor and owner of the Falls in South Dade, filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging illegalities in the selection process that awarded development rights to Rouse.

A coalition of residents, business owners, and developers gathered enough signatures to force a referendum this week designed to restrict the city commission's ability to sell or lease public lands.

Now Rouse's adversaries have found a new and unlikely weapon in their efforts to torpedo the project -- a manmade lake virtually unnoticed for more than 70 years.

At the heart of Rouse's proposed 20-acre Village of Merrick Park is the city's equipment yard, 8.4 acres in size. And at the heart of the equipment yard is a body of water, less than one acre in size, officially known as Lake Ixlater (pronounced ish-later). The Rouse plan calls for filling in the lake, a move, opponents warn, that could have serious environmental consequences.

George Merrick, the visionary father of Coral Gables, had conceived of Lake Ixlater as an integral part of his Miami Riviera. On a 1924 map, he described it as part of a larger boat-docking area and turning basin that was to be connected to the nearby Coral Gables Waterway. The hole was dug -- some of it filled up with water from an aquifer -- but a link to the waterway was never completed. (The lake's name shows up on topographic maps, although its origin is unknown.)

By 1953 the city-owned land surrounding the lake had become a place to park municipal buses. In time it evolved into a utility area for the city: vehicle maintenance, equipment storage, a sign shop. Over the years, though, the lake remained -- a home to wildlife and a sump for runoff from the equipment yard.

Now that environmentalists are aware of the lake, they're worried about its fate. "We believe the manatee in the Coral Gables Waterway depends on fresh water flowing underground from the equipment yard and Lake Ixlater," wrote Alan Farago, conservation chair of the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club, in a March 23 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We fear that construction related to the development could alter freshwater flow and turn the Coral Gables Waterway into a dead zone."

City officials emphasize that Rouse will comply with all environmental regulations. "The city is not going to do anything that endangers the manatee," says Cathy Swanson, Coral Gables's development director. "I don't believe the concerns are founded on fact, but it's something that needs to be researched."

Farago and others who oppose Rouse hope they can convince federal and state government authorities that filling in Ixlater should not be done without exhaustive study. They scored a victory on March 26 when Charles Schneppel, field chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Miami Regulatory Office, agreed that the agency had jurisdiction over the lake. Putting an end to Ixlater must now pass muster with the corps. Schneppel adds, however, that Rouse will probably not be required to apply for the agency's most stringent permit to complete the job. "The water body has to be greater than three acres or have some outstanding environmental impact," he says. "And until somebody actually gives me some paperwork, I don't see that."

"We are all prepared to ensure that [Rouse and the city] comply with the full requirements of every aspect of the law," promises Neil Proto, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental lawyer hired by the Taubman Company. Drawing from Taubman's deep pockets, Proto hired environmental and hydrological consulting firms to study the equipment yard in an effort to show why regulatory agencies need to wade into the fight.

Workers from Hydrologic Associates U.S.A. did an extensive review of files kept by the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management. They found numerous citations involving underground gasoline storage tanks and the discharge of paint and solvents at the site.

In addition to its search of county records, Hydrologic Associates tested Ixlater's water and determined that it was not severely contaminated, but did express fears about polluted sludge on the bottom of the lake. "Our big concern about the lake is what is in the sediment," says Leo Swayze, president of the firm. "It has been an industrial site since the 1920s. Anything that was on the pavement or leaked or dumped from trucks eventually ended up in that lake." (Rouse's own environmental consultant, ATC Associates, agrees that the lake bottom deserves further study because of runoff from the yard. In its deal with the city, Rouse agreed to pay up to $850,000 for environmental cleanup.)

Critics of the proposed project fear that Rouse's plan to fill the lake will force a toxic mixture of water and polluted sediment into local waterways. "Filling the lake in its current condition would be like dumping a concrete block onto a highly contaminated sponge," wrote Robert Gallagher, an attorney with the anti-development group Coalition to Save Coral Gables, in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers.

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