Yuppies in the Hood

Welcome to St. Hugh Oaks, Miami's first subsidized housing project for the affluent

The swath of land changed to white hands again in 1922, when Frow and Stirrup sold most of the land that is now St. Hugh Oaks to Hugh M. Matheson, whose family had been buying up large chunks of Dade County for ten years. The Catholic Church got it next, in 1953, when Matheson's wife donated the acreage to the Diocese of St. Augustine. In 1957 the diocese built the St. Augustine Mission School for the Black, a trade school, on the property.

In November 1958 the Diocese of St. Augustine transferred the land to the newly created Miami Diocese. St. Hugh parish assumed control of the red-brick and concrete school and integrated it as a private Catholic grade school.

The school bells were still ringing in July 1981 when Archbishop Edward McCarthy sold the property for $400,000 to the Miami Equity Corporation, which was run by two Cuban-American businessmen: president Ramon Milian-Rodriguez and secretary Anthony G. Marina.

The company had completed a townhouse project three blocks east of the St. Hugh property in 1982 and wanted to build 30 or 40 luxury townhouses on the schoolyard. To design the new structures, Marina hired Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, who had recently left the highly acclaimed Arquitectonica firm and set up their own company, DPZ.

But the project was soon bogged down.
Black Grovites complained to city officials, arguing that single-family homes would be more appropriate for their historic neighborhood. So Marina and his architects scaled down the plan, agreeing in May 1981 to limit the development to 30 houses. In 1982 St. Hugh parish abandoned the schoolhouse as planned. Students and teachers moved four blocks east to classrooms in a new building next to the St. Hugh Catholic Church on Main Highway.

This tedious lead-in to St. Hugh Oaks took a shocking detour in 1983, when federal agents arrested Milian-Rodriguez after seizing $5.4 million in cash and 60 pounds of cocaine from his Lear jet. Prosecutors linked him to the Medellin cartel and in 1985 a judge sentenced him to 43 years in prison for money laundering.

Marina, who was not charged in the case, became president of Miami Equity and pressed on with the St. Hugh Oaks project. In October 1985, while Biscayne Bank moved to foreclose on one of Miami Equity's mortgages, Marina also became president of a new company, St. Hugh Oaks Corporation. Both concerns were located at the same Mary Street address in Coconut Grove. The next month, Miami Equity sold the three-acre tract to St. Hugh Oaks Corporation for $362,000, according to city and state records.

Marina cashed in the following year. In July 1986 private appraiser Leonard Bisz valued the property at a whopping $1.1 million; two months later city commissioners saw fit to pay Marina that amount. A young mayor named Xavier Suarez signed the resolution, approving the purchase. State records show that Miami Equity went out of business in 1987.

Why the property value tripled remains a mystery. Bisz is "under a nurse's care and can't come to the phone," said a man before hanging up when New Times called the appraiser's Coral Gables residence. The Miami Herald wrote nary a word about the decision. Jeff Hepburn, the only housing employee involved in the project who is still on staff, can't explain the inflation either. "That's news to me. Usually it doesn't shoot up that much, even when it is rezoned. But I wasn't involved in the transaction," he says.

Marina, currently president of Firepak, a fire extinguisher company in Medley, declines to reveal his profit from the deal. "You'd have to figure out how much interest was at the time and how many years [the land] was owned. You'd have to do some research," he instructs. But how much did he make? "As I said, you'd have to do some research," he repeats.

Marina denies the $362,000 sale from Miami Equity to St. Hugh Oaks Corporation took place. "It was always owned by the same company," he insists. Miami Equity? "Right." Then he excused himself and hung up the phone.

The commissioners seemed to have magnanimous intentions. In addition to handsomely compensating Marina, they also promised a shot at the good life to the mostly black, low-income dwellers of Coconut Grove. Three-bedroom houses would be built and sold for as low as $65,000. A city bond fund designated for housing would be used to pay for the project. In 1986 commissioners hired DPZ and a year later, construction workers demolished the schoolhouse.

During the next five years, commissioners and neighborhood groups haggled over St. Hugh Oaks's identity, revisiting the townhouse versus single-family homes dispute and other issues. In April 1991, city officials, a black Grove neighborhood group, and the mostly white Coconut Grove Civic Club, agreed to a 30-home plan. But a splinter group of civic club members residing in the south Grove was up in arms, fearing their property values would plummet. Anglo resident Sky Smith (president of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce) expressed concerns that St. Hugh Oaks would "lend itself to a ghettolike atmosphere" and increase traffic, according to the Herald.

Finally, after a rash of hot-tempered city hall meetings, leaders of the new South Grove Homeowners Association, including Smith and Lou Wechsler, grudgingly accepted a 23-house plan. "We're ready to bite the bullet," Wechsler told the Herald in May 1991.

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