Cloistering the Commodore

Thanks to the Miami Commission, a historic swath of bayfront property is now slated to become luxury townhouses

As the waning moon rose over Dinner Key on December 8, Mary Barr Munroe, the wife of Coconut Grove pioneer and author Kirk Munroe, returned from the grave. Pink-cheeked and clad in Victorian dress, she begged Miami commissioners to stop two Boca Raton men from building 41 four-story townhouses amid an ancient hardwood hammock at the edge of Biscayne Bay not far from city hall. "I envision in that hammock one of the last pieces of land that we pioneers cared so deeply for, a beautiful place where tourists could come and see history," she admonished in a rolling brogue. "And I think we need to leave a legacy, not just let money speak to us. What are we teaching our children, when beauty and nature and history that could be shared by all become the title of only the well-to-do and keep the rest out?"

Mrs. Munroe turned out to be a fake. She was none other than actress, storyteller, and concerned citizen Judy Gail. The plan presented to the commission at city hall seemed equally incredible to many onlookers: four-story townhouses priced as high as two million dollars on one of the Grove's last bits of undeveloped bayfront property. The buildings would loom over Coconut Grove's first house, the Barnacle, which Commodore Ralph Munroe (no relation to Mary or Kirk) built in 1891. And they would dominate land the city and state agreed to buy in 1985 to expand the tiny Barnacle State Historic Site.

Critics of the proposal also question the claims of developers Leonard Albanese and Edward Popkin, who promised the project, called Cloisters on the Bay, would:

*Be sensitive to the rich history of the Grove and village ambiance
*Be responsive to the concerns and issues of neighboring properties and businesses

*Create an unparalleled signature environment for residents
*Provide major positive economic impact
*Preserve 281 of 303 native trees

For nearly three hours, Grove residents hurled verbal rocks at the luxury townhouse plan, while the developers and their lawyer Lucia Dougherty watched from front-row seats.

Bianca Badia, a ninth-grader at Coral Gables High School, read a few letters her fellow students had written to the commissioners. "Do not blow it again. The Barnacle addition was promised as a public park," scolded one. "Show Miami and the world that Miami keeps its promises." Another penned: "I'm appalled at this lack of respect for the land. Please do not support this ridiculous measure." One by one, others stepped to the podium: A park would attract tourists, protect public access to Biscayne Bay, and offer educational opportunities, they told commissioners. Sierra Club members warned they had complained to the Florida attorney general and launched a petition drive to force a citywide referendum on creating a park on the site.

But the clock was ticking toward inevitable approval of the townhouse development. The majority of the commissioners had already indicated they would vote yes. Even attorney Tucker Gibbs, representing the Coconut Grove Civic Club, supported the Cloisters plan. The pro-park people feared their words were falling on deaf ears. Could someone bring down the curtain on this bleak scenario, they wondered?

Assistant City Attorney Joel Maxwell was also afraid -- of being sued by the property owners. He advised commissioners that any discussion of the 1985 agreement to purchase the land for use as a park was "irrelevant" and could place commissioners in "legal jeopardy." After all, landowners had spent ten years suing the city over the issue and were quite capable of doing it again. The commissioners were only to consider the developers' application for a building permit, Maxwell counseled. "Members of the public be admonished," Commissioner J.L. Plummer chortled. And then the stream of anti-Cloisters statements resumed.

Lawyer Howard Scharlin, architect Ken Treister, and banker Gerald Katcher bought the property in 1983, hoping to build a shopping mall on it. But in 1984 the city commission, amid community opposition, rejected the owners' bid to rezone the property from residential to commercial. The owners sued and lost.

Then in 1985, as part of the deal that allowed Bayside Marketplace to be built on public land, the state and city agreed to make purchase of the Barnacle addition a priority. Scharlin and his partners filed more lawsuits, arguing the state and city were attempting to take the land for public use without just compensation. Again they lost.

"I did everything that I could to see that the property would be acquired for a reasonable price," huffs the landowners' lawyer, Jack Peeples. "I spent six years on this. We litigated. We did everything we could do. We never could get anybody to make us an offer. It was absolutely fruitless from day one."

As the park proponents railed on, Scharlin peered at the spectacle from the hallway just outside the chamber. "How long is a private citizen required not to use his property?" he growls. "We did everything we could do to get the state to buy the land."

Everything, that is, except allow the state to appraise it, the first step toward a possible purchase. In November the state's Bureau of Land Acquisition (BLA) sent Scharlin an appraisal request. Scharlin wrote back: "Please be advised that the property is under contract for sale for residential use; therefore, an appraisal would be inappropriate at this time."

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