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The premise of the meeting on the evening of January 13 seemed simple enough. Miami officials hoped the gathering on the second floor of the Coconut Grove Convention Center would provide a forum for Grove residents and board members of the Land Trust of Dade County to share information. But it turned ugly almost immediately.
The Land Trust proposed a modest office and research center on Stewart Avenue, a quiet, leafy road in the heart of one of the city's more affluent neighborhoods. The facility would complement the group's plans to transform the house next door, where Florida eco-saint Marjory Stoneman Douglas had lived for 70 years, into a museum. But many residents of the million-dollar homes that line the serpentine street vowed to fight the office plan; some even declared they didn't like the idea of a museum.
The neighbors brought a stenographer to the meeting to provide a record, in case they decided to sue. Land Trust president Sallye Jude tried to give a presentation on the plan, but residents were in no mood to listen. One neighbor, Jeff Schottenstein, offered to pay to move Douglas's house. Sarah Eaton, the city's historic-preservation officer, rejected the idea. Schottenstein then threatened to appeal to the governor. "I can call up Jeb and see if I can buy [Douglas's state-owned] house," he insisted. "I'm prepared to buy Mrs. Jude out, too."
Jude struggled to continue. She explained that Douglas had approved the plans before her death in 1998 at the age of 108. The Land Trust had gone out of its way to minimize the impact to the neighborhood by planning to build its office as an almost exact replica of a 1920s-era house that once existed on the site.
Residents continuously interrupted with concerns about parking, strangers roaming their neighborhood, and imperiled property values. Schottenstein got up from his seat and approached Jude, wagging his finger angrily. "Do you have a million dollars?" he asked, looming over the petite woman as she frantically tried to get out of his way.
"You haven't had trouble until you know me," he shouted, following her across the room until Jude cowered, then dissolved into tears.
"You can't do this to people," Jude sobbed. "You can't threaten us."
"I don't think it is appropriate to threaten people like this," concurred Lourdes Slazyk, the assistant planning director who soon pulled the plug on the meeting. Jude and the Land Trust representatives hurried to their cars as the residents filed into the street, still arguing with whomever would listen.
It's hard to say whether Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an ardent preservationist who cherished her privacy, would be horrified or bemused at this turn of events. Born in 1890 Douglas arrived in Miami from Minnesota at age 25. She went to work as a society columnist for her father, Judge Frank Stoneman, at his fledgling newspaper, the Miami Herald. After a few years, Douglas quit the job to write freelance articles and short stories. In 1926 she had a small cottage built on Stewart Avenue in Coconut Grove. "I hoped my little house would be as stout and as sparse as a factory, with not much to worry about," she wrote in her autobiography Voice of the River. Construction proceeded fitfully as money from her writing work dribbled in. She called it the "house that the Saturday Evening Post built."
Douglas took to Coconut Grove's artist culture and its relative isolation. In one of her books she called the area a place where people "enjoyed their neighbors but didn't want to live too close to them." Over the years Douglas's house served as a center for citizens who wanted to stop environmental destruction in South Florida. She also penned her 1947 environmental classic, The Everglades: River of Grass, in its rooms. The book awakened worldwide interest in South Florida's unique ecosystem, and led to the creation of one of America's best-loved national parks. Recognition of Douglas's stature as a public treasure grew with her advancing years. In 1987 the Florida Cabinet named her a "Great Floridian" and in 1993 President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
Yet at age 101 Douglas found herself broke. "The money she got from the sale of her books was not very much," remembers Nancy Brown, who took the presidency of Douglas's environmental group, Friends of the Everglades, when the aging activist stepped down at age 100. "She was in old contracts where she got next to nothing and had no real income."
In 1991, through the lobbying efforts of her friends, state legislators convinced the Florida Department of Natural Resources to purchase Douglas's home for a little more than $100,000 and transform it into a historical monument. As part of the deal, the Land Trust was assigned to manage it. The state and the trust fixed up the place, repairing the roof and installing air conditioning for the first time, and allowed the then-101-year-old to continue living in the house. In 1994 the Land Trust bought the adjacent property, once known as the Cole House.
In 1997 Jude convinced the Miami City Commission to change the zoning on both parcels to allow for a museum and office space. Neighbors were given the opportunity to opine on the plan, but remained silent, according to Jude and Eaton.
The issue came up in October 1999 at a hearing before the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, when the Land Trust requested approval to begin construction. Neighbors insist this was the first time they had heard the full extent of the plan. In attendance was John Freud, who said he had attended an earlier meeting where no decision was reached on whether to give the property a historic designation. Although the city is required to inform residents who live near a proposed project of a public hearing, Freud testified he never heard from the city again.
Eaton insisted the city had fulfilled legal requirements. "All neighbors within 375 feet of the subject of the property were notified of the hearing," she reassured board members. (Reached by phone last week, Eaton acknowledged she had not researched whether neighbors were told of the proposal.)
The historic-preservation board voted against the building permit for the site, but shortly after the meeting Eaton decided another hearing would be held to ensure every interested person could have input.
Neighbors on Stewart Avenue now are fully aware of the plan and vow to do whatever it takes to stop it. Residents include lawyers, accountants, and even a television personality, soccer commentator Andres Cantor. While some say that given the zoning change and Douglas's historic importance they could support a museum with limited visiting hours and parking spaces, all draw the line at an office.
Jude refuses to talk further about the issue for fear of jeopardizing future talks with residents. But she is clearly not optimistic. "I don't know if there is a snowball's chance in Hell of it happening," she admits.
Meanwhile both sides struggle to lay claim to the legacy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas: "She spent her life trying to preserve the Everglades," says David Turner, a Land Trust board member. "I think she would have been upset that they are not allowing the preservation of her house."
Neighbors of course disagree. "She didn't want people around [either]," says Lewis Freeman, who lives down the street from the house. "They are paving paradise to put up a parking lot."