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Cloistering the Commodore

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."

Unfortunately for park proponents, the county or state cannot buy the property without a "willing seller," explains Emilie Young, director of the Miami-Dade Environmentally Endangered Lands program. "When the owners tell you to go away, that pretty much means that they're not willing sellers," Young says. "If we had a willing seller, something could be worked out." In fact, Miami-Dade County has also been ready to help with the purchase. The county currently has about $17 million in a fund designed to aid acquisition of lands such as the Barnacle addition.

"We have always wanted to buy this property," exclaims Jerry Adams, a senior acquisitions agent at BLA. "We just want to find a way to do it!" He says millions of state dollars are available and have been for years.

But as the curtain fell at city hall, the commission voted 4-1 in favor of a major use special permit -- the only thing Popkin and Albanese need to begin building the luxury homes. Perhaps the most interesting rationale was given by Commissioner Willy Gort, who voted yes because he doesn't think many people go to city parks. Commissioner Arthur Teele was the only one to vote against the plan, saying it would cause too much environmental damage.

But Adams envisions another act for this fifteen-year tragicomedy. It will begin only after Scharlin and his partners leave the scene. Popkin and Albanese could sell the land to the state, he suggests. "We would be interested in having a conversation with the new buyers," Adams says. "If the developers would like to sell the property to us, we will buy it."

But how much would the state be willing to pay? Adams says an appraisal would probably come up with about what Popkin and Albanese are shelling out. "They're just about to buy it for $11.6 million or whatever it is. If they buy it for that, it's a pretty damn good indication it's worth that." In other words, Scharlin and his partners could cash in, Popkin and Albanese could get a return on their investment, and the city could gain a new, historic waterfront park.

"We have a rich sense of the history of the Grove. We're doing our best to be good neighbors," says developer Popkin, as if reading a part he's rehearsed a thousand times. Could being a good neighbor mean selling his new property to the state?

kirk_nielsen@miaminewtimes.com


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