Time is running out. By December Coral Gables must vacate a yard where municipal vehicles are repaired and the city's public works staff is housed. In a hard-fought April 1998 referendum, Gables voters agreed to lease the site to the Rouse Company for a new megamall.
Construction of a new public works facility is already under way. But there is a problem: The land is outside the Gables, the city needs a variance to use the site, and neighborhood residents vow to fight. They promise to come out in force at a county zoning board hearing scheduled for September. Henry Hamman, who is among those leading the charge against the project, argues the "City Beautiful" is treating his neighborhood in a way it would never countenance in its own rule-obsessed municipality. "I don't think they would do this to their worst neighborhood," he complains. "Their hypocrisy is only matched by their arrogance."
The 52-year-old Hamman blames Coral Gables for most of the ills of his middle-class area, which is bordered by Coral Way, Bird Road, the Palmetto Expressway, and SW 72nd Avenue.
Gables officials are so confident of victory that they have yet to formulate a contingency plan. The city has owned the more than 18-acre parcel since 1951. An incinerator located on the property was shut down decades ago. For years the city has leased some of the site to Miami-Dade County for a trash-transfer station. These days the site sometimes emits a foul odor.
In 1986 the Coral Gables city commission appointed a committee to study whether its public works facility at 240 San Lorenzo Ave. should be moved about three miles to the property in Hamman's neighborhood at 2800 SW 72nd Ave. Proposals to develop the yard on San Lorenzo had been floated periodically since the Seventies. Developers were interested, even though the site was polluted and without landscaping. After three years of study, the committee unanimously concluded that moving would be too expensive; the city should instead repair the San Lorenzo site. Commissioners, including present Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, agreed.
"There was a feeling that if we were going to have a blight it should be in our neighborhood," remembers Randall Berg, who chaired the committee.
There were also concerns that some contamination from the incinerator remained. City officials insist that it was cleaned up.
But in December 1997 the city commission decided the Rouse company should develop the San Lorenzo parcel. Valdes-Fauli was a prime advocate. The city insists that revenue from the Rouse megamall will pay for the move. (Rouse developed Bayside and other successful marketplaces across the nation.)
In an effort to accelerate construction on the new equipment yard, the county agreed in March to allow the city to begin building. But the new facility cannot be used unless the county grants a variance. In May residents inquired about the city's plans and in June about 50 of them decided to form a homeowners association. "There is a lot of money invested in my house, and I don't want my property values to drop," says Jorge Respeto, a resident who is participating in the organizing effort.
When Hamman went to county hall to review the plans, he discovered they weren't there. In fact the blueprints are on file with Coral Gables; the county has allowed the city to keep the plans, issue permits, and use its inspectors on the site. (The county will perform the final inspection.) Residents believe this is a clear conflict of interest.
Coral Gables Assistant City Manager Maria Jimenez says it's legal. "As a landlord we are going to get the best product we can." Planned for the site are parking for more than 50 garbage trucks, a vehicle maintenance facility, a sign shop, a storage area, and offices for public works and purchasing department workers. There will also be an employee lounge with bathrooms and showers. The project will cost about eight million dollars.
Gables officials insist they would have told residents more at the outset, but there was no neighborhood group to inform. "We are talking with them [now]," says Jimenez.
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Residents worry the new equipment yard will bring traffic to a standstill on SW 72nd Avenue. Presently a multiplicity of buses and passing trains can turn a one-mile drive to the Palmetto into a twenty-minute ordeal, residents say. "Nobody has thought seriously about what this is going to do to our road, which is already congested," Hamman insists.
Gables officials suggest they may be willing to use an alternate exit for trucks. But that might not be enough to satisfy neighbors of the 72nd Avenue property. There are years of distrust to overcome. "This neighborhood has been abused and insulted for too long," Hamman argues. "[Coral Gables's] slogan is, 'In your back yard, not in my back yard.'"
On a recent afternoon, Hamman pointed out clogged drains, trash piles, and dilapidated buildings at the 72nd Avenue site. None of this would be allowed in Coral Gables, he says indignantly. In addition no permits or plans were posted, which violates county and city law.
Such debris is normal for a construction site, Jimenez counters. She acknowledges the permits should be posted. Although mistakes may have been made in the past, she now hopes to work with residents to find a mutually acceptable solution. As time runs out and Rouse prepares to start construction, Gables officials seem to have little choice.