Pave It to Save It

Swamilike, the man they call Tomato Richard is seated peacefully in a folding lawn chair beneath an oak tree in Coconut Grove, his thin legs crossed so tightly they're braided, a flip-flop dangling from bony toes. He's holding forth in his crackly tenor about the spiritual pleasures of the farmers' market bustling all around him.

"It's just beautiful," says Richard, who acquired his moniker by restricting his diet to tomatoes and little else. "People connecting through love. You can be here for three hours and get three hours of affection and hugs." Richard is a regular at Dade's only urban farmers' market, which began in 1977 and has been held every Saturday on an empty lot at the corner of Grand Avenue and McDonald Street.

On any given rainless Saturday, two or three dozen vendors transform the otherwise forlorn, grassy lot into a small, feel-good festival of food, music, and crafts. Beyond the traditional mainstays of any farmers' market -- fruit and vegetables -- visitors to the weekly Grove gathering can buy fresh seafood, home-baked breads and desserts, Vietnamese shrimp or tofu fritters, body oils, fresh-squeezed wheatgrass and other juices, full-body massages, and bicycle repairs.

But those who return week after week understand that the market represents much more than mangoes and a back rub. Situated along the de facto border separating the predominately black West Grove from the predominately white East Grove, the market provides a unique, low-key meeting place free of racial and class tensions. Arriving by foot and BMW, visitors of all ethnicities mingle comfortably under the full boughs of the three expansive oaks that have become the market's totems.

In keeping with the communal spirit, the property owners allowed the market to operate free of charge until four years ago. Now the vendors pitch in to pay insurance and the monthly rent of $500, a pittance compared to the astronomical cost of Grove real estate. "It's one of the last honest affairs of its kind in that it's both a market for the rich in the South Grove and the less rich in the rest of the Grove," remarks Ben Taylor, a Grove resident who has purchased his vegetables at the market for eight years. "It's pretty colorful, it's always been very peaceful, and it's not a money-making effort, really. It's a community effort."

Earlier this year, though, the market's carefree sensibility collided with the mind-numbing complexities of City of Miami zoning rules. To the alarm of vendors and loyal marketgoers, city officials announced that the market had been operating illegally. "It took us by surprise," says organic farmer Stanley Glaser, who accepted the responsibility several years ago for managing the market's affairs. "The way we found out that we were illegal was when somebody came and issued us a summons during the market."

City administrators began to scrutinize activity on the site after the property owners, a partnership headed by Arturo Comas of Key Biscayne, applied in January for permission to turn the 1.5-acre property into 149 paved parking spaces. (The rear half of the lot, where the market operates, is zoned for residential use; the front half is zoned for commercial use.) After neighborhood residents opposed the construction of a parking lot on the residentially zoned portion, the city commission rejected the request. In the process, however, commissioners learned that the farmers' market was operating without proper permits, in an area zoned exclusively for residential use.

Rather than shut down the market, zoning administrators allowed Glaser and the property owners until August 10 to move the market to the front of the lot along Grand Avenue and to secure a certificate of use. In addition, administrators told the property owners that in order for the market to remain, adequate parking would have to be constructed in compliance with the city's off-street parking regulations. (In June Miami Zoning Administrator Joseph Genuardi rejected a plan to pave the commercial-use section of the lot for parking, because the proposal didn't conform to zoning laws.)

A representative of Arturo Comas's group says the property owners are revising their plans as quickly as possible in order to meet the city's deadline. "If we can get the parking lot approved," says Julian Mesa, "the market should move up front and we can leave the residential area clean." Mesa says that the owners, who own several other Grove properties including the Fuddruckers mall on Main Highway, hope to build a small, one-story shopping mall on the Grand Avenue site sometime within the next five or ten years. "But we've always envisioned the farmers' market as part of whatever is done there," he adds.

Despite their landlords' assurances, vendors and patrons envision an asphalted and uncomfortable future at the Grand Avenue site. Even if a parking lot is okayed for the front section, shifting the market would mean moving it out from under the shade of the trees into a barren area that's about as inviting as an unripe banana. "It seems the best we can do on this site is set up on a parking lot. It just wouldn't be a nice place to hang out. We'd burn up," says Glaser, who is looking for a new, shady location. Glaser says he has considered other areas in the Grove, as well as Miami Beach and elsewhere, but so far the search has been fruitless.

The market will continue to spring up every Saturday, at least until Glaser locates another site, until the owners build a parking lot, or until mid-August, whichever comes first. In the past few months, market organizers collected 1300 names on a petition asking that the market be allowed to remain unchanged, in its present location. But they still haven't sent the petition to anyone. "We don't know what to do with it," says a bewildered and frustrated Glaser, clearly a man who is more at home in his avocado groves than walking the sterile corridors of bureaucracy. "We keep bumping up against faceless zoning people. Is there any humanity anywhere, or are we just a system of numbers here?


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