By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The cinnabar landscape is littered with the carcasses of 'roos and koalas ... no, wait, that's the Australian Outback. The Bitch had the vastness of the barren expanse confused momentarily with that of the wasteland known as the Coconut Grove retail district, which includes the epitome of the void, CocoWalk. The only small merchants who seem to be thriving are a few boutiques selling skank wear and fraternity thug-attracting watering holes such as Fat Tuesday's and the Sandbar Grill.
From Main Highway to Virginia Street to Commodore Plaza, empty storefronts balloon like the set of Dark City. Fuddruckers, Sephora, Urban Village, Pauloluigi's, Old Navy, and French Connection have all dematerialized over the past months. Things are so bleak, even that friend to the downscale, Miami Subs & Grill on Grand Avenue, recently folded its final pita pocket.
Betty Amos, president of the Abkey Companies, which owns Fuddruckers' franchises in Florida and Tennessee, closed the Fuddruckers on Fuller Street last November after seventeen years in business. "Traffic has decreased greatly in the Grove the last few years," Amos says. "I was losing money and I didn't see things changing in the near future. So I decided to close the doors."
Also in the Grove ...Sylvano Bignon, who runs Greenstreet Café on the corner of Main and Commodore, is all for revitalizing the Grove. He's just not sure about putting a charter school in the middle of its commercial district. "On the right of the school is a bar with a liquor license, on the left of the school is a bar with a liquor license. And in the front of the school? A bar with a liquor license. I don't know if it's the best environment for a school."
A school is nonetheless being foisted upon the Grove by inveterate dreamer Manny Alonso-Poch.
A few years ago the attorney and developer wanted to build a $25 million hotel-retail complex and parking garage next to the Coconut Grove Playhouse. That deal fell through after years of bickering with the theater's board and a lawsuit. In 1998 Alonso-Poch bought a derelict cargo ship and left it illegally docked next to Bicentennial Park for more than a year. He eventually donated the rusting hulk to the county to be sunk as an artificial reef.
Now Alonso-Poch plans to open a charter high school in the Grove Harbor Plaza building he owns on Commodore Plaza. The Academy of Arts and Minds is scheduled to open this August with up to 300 students. "This is a group of art lovers who think arts education is the way to build a civilized community," Alonso-Poch explains of the school's development team, which includes New World School of the Arts theater teacher Jorge Guerra and former telenovelaactress Lili Rentería. Alonso-Poch also solves the problem of what to do with his building, a four-story affair with terraces and balconies that has been largely empty for years.
Other nearby business owners are miffed that the school was approved before they even knew there was a plan in the works. "Nobody knows anything," asserts Frame Works owner Claire Lardner. "They've never come to the merchants to say this is what we are planning. Nobody's had the courtesy to call us, which, frankly, I think is rude."
On the waterfront
With both developers and the City of Miami drooling over the waterfront property from Dinner Key to Peacock Park, Coconut Grove Sailing Clubmembers, whose clubhouse sits on city-owned land, are eyeing the lifeboats. For the past three years the club has operated at 2990 Bayshore Dr. without benefit of a lease from the city, and rumors abound that site plans for the much-coveted area do not include the 55-year-old club.
"There is a real absolute risk," Commodore Bud Pricesays. "There are certainly a lot of bureaucrats who would like us not to be there."
The CGSC, once a private entity with annual memberships costing nearly $1600, doesn't fit the city's mandate for public use of the waterfront. To qualify for inclusion in the city's master plan, the club began offering "social" memberships to Miami residents for $50, and offering free sailing classes and nautical seminars.
Although public access is top priority for the city, private development is not out of the question. Commissioner Johnny Winton points to the area around the Coconut Grove Expo Center as a possibility for a residential project.
"Frankly, I like the sailing club," Winton says. "I'm convinced there's a role for it, but I don't have a predetermined notion as to what that role may be." A proposal to hire a consultant to advise on the city's master plan for the area is expected to be made public soon.
Burgerless in Surfside
When Toby Spector announced that Sheldon's Drugs would close its doors this month after 55 years as Surfside's lunch counter and crown jewel of kitsch, reporters converged on Harding Avenue as if the food there were free instead of merely fried.
Sheldon's was truly a holdover of old Floridiana, and its closure prompted the kind of frenzied nostalgia not seen since the demise of Wolfie's.
It is de rigueur for this story to have as its villain the evil landlord, whose love for lucre compels acts of callousness beyond measure. In this case the landlord is 9501 Properties, Inc., owner of the building since February. A story in the Miami Herald's Neighbors section read: "According to Toby Spector, after a new landlord bought the building, the rent was raised over 40 percent, an amount the family cannot afford."