Pond Scum

In the fierce struggle to derail a proposed $275 million shopping mall that promises to transform a Coral Gables neighborhood, opponents have tried just about everything. They attacked the developer, the Rouse Company, charging that the upscale mall would have a negative impact on local businesses, traffic, and even the high school across the street.

The Taubman Company, a shopping-mall competitor and owner of the Falls in South Dade, filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging illegalities in the selection process that awarded development rights to Rouse.

A coalition of residents, business owners, and developers gathered enough signatures to force a referendum this week designed to restrict the city commission's ability to sell or lease public lands.

Now Rouse's adversaries have found a new and unlikely weapon in their efforts to torpedo the project -- a manmade lake virtually unnoticed for more than 70 years.

At the heart of Rouse's proposed 20-acre Village of Merrick Park is the city's equipment yard, 8.4 acres in size. And at the heart of the equipment yard is a body of water, less than one acre in size, officially known as Lake Ixlater (pronounced ish-later). The Rouse plan calls for filling in the lake, a move, opponents warn, that could have serious environmental consequences.

George Merrick, the visionary father of Coral Gables, had conceived of Lake Ixlater as an integral part of his Miami Riviera. On a 1924 map, he described it as part of a larger boat-docking area and turning basin that was to be connected to the nearby Coral Gables Waterway. The hole was dug -- some of it filled up with water from an aquifer -- but a link to the waterway was never completed. (The lake's name shows up on topographic maps, although its origin is unknown.)

By 1953 the city-owned land surrounding the lake had become a place to park municipal buses. In time it evolved into a utility area for the city: vehicle maintenance, equipment storage, a sign shop. Over the years, though, the lake remained -- a home to wildlife and a sump for runoff from the equipment yard.

Now that environmentalists are aware of the lake, they're worried about its fate. "We believe the manatee in the Coral Gables Waterway depends on fresh water flowing underground from the equipment yard and Lake Ixlater," wrote Alan Farago, conservation chair of the Miami chapter of the Sierra Club, in a March 23 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We fear that construction related to the development could alter freshwater flow and turn the Coral Gables Waterway into a dead zone."

City officials emphasize that Rouse will comply with all environmental regulations. "The city is not going to do anything that endangers the manatee," says Cathy Swanson, Coral Gables's development director. "I don't believe the concerns are founded on fact, but it's something that needs to be researched."

Farago and others who oppose Rouse hope they can convince federal and state government authorities that filling in Ixlater should not be done without exhaustive study. They scored a victory on March 26 when Charles Schneppel, field chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Miami Regulatory Office, agreed that the agency had jurisdiction over the lake. Putting an end to Ixlater must now pass muster with the corps. Schneppel adds, however, that Rouse will probably not be required to apply for the agency's most stringent permit to complete the job. "The water body has to be greater than three acres or have some outstanding environmental impact," he says. "And until somebody actually gives me some paperwork, I don't see that."

"We are all prepared to ensure that [Rouse and the city] comply with the full requirements of every aspect of the law," promises Neil Proto, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental lawyer hired by the Taubman Company. Drawing from Taubman's deep pockets, Proto hired environmental and hydrological consulting firms to study the equipment yard in an effort to show why regulatory agencies need to wade into the fight.

Workers from Hydrologic Associates U.S.A. did an extensive review of files kept by the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management. They found numerous citations involving underground gasoline storage tanks and the discharge of paint and solvents at the site.

In addition to its search of county records, Hydrologic Associates tested Ixlater's water and determined that it was not severely contaminated, but did express fears about polluted sludge on the bottom of the lake. "Our big concern about the lake is what is in the sediment," says Leo Swayze, president of the firm. "It has been an industrial site since the 1920s. Anything that was on the pavement or leaked or dumped from trucks eventually ended up in that lake." (Rouse's own environmental consultant, ATC Associates, agrees that the lake bottom deserves further study because of runoff from the yard. In its deal with the city, Rouse agreed to pay up to $850,000 for environmental cleanup.)

Critics of the proposed project fear that Rouse's plan to fill the lake will force a toxic mixture of water and polluted sediment into local waterways. "Filling the lake in its current condition would be like dumping a concrete block onto a highly contaminated sponge," wrote Robert Gallagher, an attorney with the anti-development group Coalition to Save Coral Gables, in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps itself does not study pollution issues, according to field chief Schneppel, but before he can approve a permit to fill the lake, he needs a water-quality assessment from the South Florida Water Management District. The degree of pollution could be a factor in his decision to approve a permit.

Environmentalists also assert that the lake is an important habitat for birds and several species of turtles, a claim that Rouse disputes. In a report to the South Florida Regional Planning Council, the developer stated there was no significant habitat at the lake and thus further study was unwarranted. "Today there is nothing in my mind that would cause concern about filling in the lake," says Anthony Albanese, Rouse's vice president for construction.

Ronald Gaby, president of the environmental firm Gaby & Gaby, hired by opponents of Rouse, led a twelve-day study of Lake Ixlater late last month. He and his staff made their observations from behind a fence that encircles the yard and counted thirteen species of birds and at least three species of turtles. "What that says to me is that [Rouse] looked at the lake once, for I don't know how long," Gaby reports, "and on the basis of that one examination they said they know the ecological value of it."

The city has offered to relocate the lake's Muscovy ducks and turtles, although it has yet to find a home for them, according to development director Swanson. "There is ample time for us to develop and complete a friendly relocation," she says, noting that Coral Gables isn't scheduled to hand over the property to Rouse until September 1999. Swanson admits, though, that there is not much the city can do for migratory birds. That and other unanswered questions elicit skepticism from Gaby. "The bottom line," he says, "is that we don't know everything about that lake, and it appears it has some significance."

Clearly it now has significance for city officials. On March 25 Gaby & Gaby biologist Devon Graham witnessed an unexpected sight at the yard. Instead of the pied-billed grebes and Muscovy ducks he had previously seen, Graham observed workers erect a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire that now encircles Lake Ixlater.

"[The fence] went up because there was concern that somebody would try to tamper with the pond," says Swanson, explaining that city officials feared the Rouse-financed ATC study, completed almost two months earlier, could somehow be compromised. Ron Gaby says that after the fence's installation, the bird and turtle populations at the lake have decreased dramatically.

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