Just when you thought it was safe to go back into a Coconut Grove parking garage, some developer tries to gouge you. Under City of Miami law, a person is supposed to be able to park a vehicle in the garage at the 22-story Mutiny Park condominium (just a block east of CocoWalk) at the same annoying rates one pays at the street meters outside -- that is, a quarter for fifteen minutes, fifty cents for a half-hour, and a dollar per hour. But since the facility opened this past November, developer Ricardo Dunin has been allowing Quik Park to charge an exorbitant five-dollar flat rate. Cinco dolares, even to spend just a few minutes at the adjacent public library, or to dash across McFarlane Road to the chamber of commerce or Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, or to take a quick stroll in Peacock Park to look at that dazzling bay. Infuriating?
A group of Grove residents thought so, especially in light of Dunin's 1996 agreement to provide 187 parking spaces at street rates. In exchange for that magnanimous gesture, the Miami City Commission allowed him to construct a bigger and taller building than originally permitted. (Commissioner Johnny Winton estimated the additional 65,000 square feet added ten million dollars to the value of the property, whose complete name is Mutiny Park Luxury Apart-Hotel Condominiums.) Then about nine months ago, with the assistance of überdevelopment lawyer Lucia Dougherty, Dunin began to envision a new ordinance. "We wanted the garage to be able to charge market rates," Dougherty told New Times. They placed a proposal on the agenda for this week's commission meeting (January 24).
That move prompted fifteen angry residents to gather two weeks ago at the Coconut Grove Women's Club, a small, 81-year-old historic wood-and-coral building that lies in the shadows of the brand-new Mutiny Park and the refurbished Mutiny Hotel, a notorious den for cocaine cowboys and other decadent souls until it closed in 1989. (The renovated hotel reopened in December 1998.) "They got what they were promised," bemoaned women's club president Charity Johnson, referring to the extra square footage. "Now, when it comes time to do their part of the agreement, they want to change it."
Led by art teacher-activist Glenn Terry, the participants plotted a protest that would include burning the Mutiny in effigy. The demonstration would be held in front of the offending garage the evening before the Thursday commission meeting, to raise public awareness. Terry prepared the signs, which carried catchy phrases such as "Mutiny Greedy? Yes Indeedy," "Mutiny, Take Your $5 Flat Rate and Shove It," and "The Mutiny Sucks." They decided to perform a trial run. Carrying the signs, they schlepped from the women's club out to the sidewalk along McFarlane Road, past the rustic little library, past pioneer Eva Munroe's 120-year-old gravesite, and stopped in front of the high-rise. As cars inched by in the evening traffic jam, Terry and crew tried out a few chants. "Public parking at metered rates! Public parking at metered rates!" went one of them, initiated by Grove resident Jonathan Blum.
As if on cue, Ricardo Dunin walked by with a prospective condominium buyer, who asked about the picketers. The developer waved a hand dismissively at the group and said he didn't know why they were upset. He then resumed his tour, pointing out some architectural feature.
The demonstration ended after ten minutes. "This is a bad corporate citizen trying to run roughshod over a deal they made," Blum said, as the protesters straggled back toward the women's club.
A banker who currently resides in Coral Gables walked by carrying a condominium sales brochure and inquired about the protest. "I'm with you," he said after Blum explained the parking flap. "It's a beautiful location," the banker allowed, "but I did notice it was built a little cheaply. Looks like they put it up a little too quickly. Maybe that's how it works these days."
Four days after the protest drill, Dunin announced he was withdrawing his item from the commission agenda. "Because of all this mess that was created I just dropped it," he explained. "Personally I'm hurt. I try to do things the right way." He said he wished the protesters had come to him first before staging the practice demonstration. He added that his proposal would have allowed library patrons, NET office visitors, and members of the women's club and the Coconut Grove Sailing Club to pay meter rates. But the Coconut Grove Civic Club wanted meter rates for all.
In a separate interview, Dougherty said her client made the decision to withdraw his proposal because he didn't want to generate more negative publicity. But the attempt to change the law was entirely justified, she argued. "There's nothing wrong with trying to change an ordinance," she declared. "Things change. Costs go up."
Dunin wanted to be able to charge market rates, because "we didn't want to be at the mercy of some board that controls the meter rates," Dougherty added. "What if they lowered the meter rates to 25 cents an hour? You couldn't run a garage on 25 cents an hour." She expressed surprise when New Times informed her that Quik Park was still charging the five-dollar flat rate. "They shouldn't be," the attorney noted.
When told that Quik Park was still gouging, Dunin said he was going to write the company another warning letter immediately. "If they are doing it, they are doing wrongly," he declared.
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Dunin's surrender on the parking-rates matter could spell a swift departure of Quik Park, which is leasing the two-level garage. "The most likely thing is that we will cancel the lease agreements with Quik Park," Dunin predicted.
Civic club president Frank Balzebre sent an e-mail to club members after Dunin told him he was withdrawing his proposal to raise rates. "[Dunin] stated that he doesn't want to continue this fight in the streets or papers and thought he was giving us, the community, a better deal' with what he was attempting to do: security attendant, automated machine to take credit cards, fractions thereof on the parking rate, etc.," Balzebre wrote. "He claims the protest [sign] should have read, Hank Sopher Sucks,' not the Mutiny." (Sopher owns Quik Park.)
Dunin insists he never would have suggested such a slogan.
Sopher sees an impasse ahead. "We can't run a garage charging 25 cents for fifteen minutes," he grumbled. "We're not a meter collection agency."