Don't Harm the Charm

Residents of tiny Miami Springs are doing battle over their town's future

The Cozy Corner in Miami Springs is buzzing this Wednesday morning with what seems like half the town. Strong coffee washes down decadent piles of eggs, bacon, and French toast, seasoned with the latest conspiracy theory racing through the city shortly before an election that just might change everything.

Or maybe not, offers Chuck, a grizzled railroad engineer and 56-year Miami Springs resident who's been swearing for years he's ready to move out of this quaint burg before the rest of Miami-Dade County swallows it whole. "Don't get me wrong," Chuck ruminates. "It's a nice little town. But if they think putting in some trees and adding a couple of stories to these buildings is going to “revitalize' the town -- " He trails off and points out the diner's front window to the shops that inhabit the modest downtown. "If you want to buy a pair of shoes, why would you come here? There's three malls just on the way to the turnpike. It's not like we're in the middle of nowhere."

What Miami Springs is in the middle of is both a geographical quirk and an identity crisis. An April 3 election will result in at least three and possibly five new faces at city hall. The election also may serve as a referendum for some 6000 voters regarding the city's adopted plan to revitalize its business district. Whatever the outcome a small group of outspoken residents opposed to the plan already has formed a political action committee called Save the Springs, aimed at putting on a future ballot two city charter amendments limiting the power of the city council to increase building heights and sell or lease public property. Philosophical combatants have been blasting away at one another for months in the hometown paper, the River Cities Gazette, and at city hall. At one meeting a councilwoman was provoked to declare that opponents of the plan should be driven out of town.

Joe Solla, a local attorney with an office in downtown Miami Springs and a frequent Cozy Corner patron, volunteers a positive spin on the debate. "The nicest thing I can say about our small-town controversy is, they get all --" He pauses thoughtfully before continuing. "They want to kill each other because they like this place so much. Sometimes they forget that they're all coming from the same place." Solla adds that Miami Springs is like the town that time forgot, a circumstance that has given rise to opposing views among protective residents. "Narrow-minded," quips a Cozy Corner waitress. "Stodgy," corrects Solla. "I prefer stodgy."

Aviator and town-builder Glenn Curtiss set all this in motion back in the Twenties when he conceived of a tiny Middle American oasis that would be the antithesis of Hialeah sprawl. Loosely packed into three square miles bordered by Hialeah and Miami International Airport are a publicly owned golf course, a small town center, and about 14,000 residents, more than half of whom migrated across the Miami Canal from Hialeah. Quiet residential streets of mostly single-family homes form a neat patchwork that crisscrosses the triangle-shaped municipality.

Miami Springs technically is a city, but everybody who lives there calls it a town, and the place does have a kind of Mayberry feel to it. In the mornings and afternoons, folks of all ages stroll down the tree-lined greenway in the median of Curtiss Parkway. Red, white, and blue signs advertising the fifteen candidates running for mayor or one of four city council seats are staked in manicured lawns and plastered to shop windows.

All this is as it should be, people tell one another in coffee shops and beauty parlors and at city hall. "We are a bedroom community, and we pride ourselves on that," says Assistant City Manager Jim Borgmann. "It's a nice, quiet atmosphere. I've lived here for 42 years. The elementary school I went to is two blocks away. Sometimes I look out my office and think, Forty years and I've made it two blocks." To most of the outside world, however, Miami Springs is nothing more than a pass-through on the way to somewhere else. The downtown business district is suffering from a lack of customers, some storefronts frequently change tenants, and there are several run-down, vacant buildings, one of them owned by the president of the local chamber of commerce.

But now that the city has a $750,000 state grant for downtown redevelopment burning a hole in its pocket, vociferous debate has opened over just what vague words such as redevelopment and revitalization will really mean to residents and business owners. Fred Suco, a Miami-Dade Police Department detective by day and Save the Springs treasurer during his free time, thinks he knows the answer -- and it isn't good. "Why would you destroy what's there in the name of redevelopment?" he questions.

Suco is wary of a plan, innocuously titled "Our Town," drawn up by consultants and approved by the city council this past February. The long-term vision suggests the sort of treatment that has worked to varying degrees in other towns, such as slowing traffic, widening sidewalks, planting trees, and having business owners renovate storefronts to conform to a unified theme. There are other suggestions, such as increasing office and retail space, adding apartments above downtown businesses, and building parking garages. Suco and a handful of other residents believe that while some of these ideas are good, the potential is great for monstrous development to overtake Miami Springs.

The problem, according to Suco, is that much of the success of revitalization will depend on the city attracting developers to downtown, and developers, he believes, are not going to be interested in building cute little hometown shops. They're going to want to tear down old buildings and erect in their place businesses that appeal to the masses. Suco and others contend that the powers that be -- namely much of the incumbent city council and certain real estate types who support them -- would benefit from such an approach since some of them own property downtown. He asks why the chamber of commerce and city council haven't been more supportive of the small businesses already located downtown. Then he answers his own question. "Instead of marketing the businesses, the chamber tried to crush them, because if they were doing well, they wouldn't be able to complain about how bad the businesses are doing," he grumbles. "They want to do a top-down [revitalization], not a bottom up."

Some other townspeople share Suco's suspicions. "I think they're lining their pockets," cracks Carol Snoke, a Cozy Corner waitress with bright red nails and hair to match. "They don't encourage businesses. They say they do, but they don't make things easy for them." Karen Coons, fellow waitress and daughter of the diner's owner, believes some parts of the revitalization plan would help businesses. She recognizes that Miami Springs isn't what it once was, but that it could still be vital. People are just scared, she reasons, scared they'll lose control of the process and of everything they like about the town. "It's like a self-contained little world here," Coons explains. "Taxes are higher, but services are good and you get a say in what happens."

Assistant City Manager Borgmann acknowledges there's a difference of opinion regarding how much commercial development should be allowed in Miami Springs. But he argues that the city needs more businesses to support a larger share of the tax base, and the only feasible area for commercial growth is downtown and along NE 36th Street. "When you stop and look at the fact that we are landlocked, we don't really have anywhere to go," Borgmann maintains. "I don't think any politician in this town in their right minds would say they were going to bulldoze residential areas."

Six-year council member and current mayoral candidate Richard Wheeler thinks the problem with downtown is that businesses are not accommodating the changing needs of consumers, and so residents are going elsewhere to shop. He points to the long tenures of several on the city council as evidence that most in Miami Springs are happy with the city's direction. The unusual number of candidates in this election he attributes to the power vacuum created when term limits prevented current Mayor John Cavalier from running again, and two councilmen -- Wheeler and Eric Elza -- gave up their seats to campaign for mayor. But several slow-growthers running in the election hope voters will side with them. Architect Martin Marquez, a candidate for city council and a vocal opponent of the redevelopment plan, sees the city as a delicate ecosystem that must remain balanced if it is to work. He fears that lots of new apartments and big businesses will ruin Miami Springs. It won't be special anymore. It'll be Hialeah. Says Marquez: "The best thing I can do is try to grab this thing and keep it from going off the cliff."

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