Urban Planning
8:35 am
Tue April 1, 2014

West Grove Trolley Garage Unearths Vulnerabilities Of Low-Income Neighborhoods

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Miami’s West Grove residents, unhappy a trolley garage servicing Coral Gables was built in their neighborhood, may soon be able to claim a small victory. After a series of legal battles including a civil-rights investigation, Coral Gables and the garage's developer are now looking to pull out of the West Grove.

 But even as the stakeholders work to resolve this drawn-out debacle, the West Grove could remain vulnerable to unwanted development. Blame zoning laws, real estate demand -- and poverty.

Coral Gables’ current trolley garage looks a little out of place one block from swanky Merrick Park, a mixed-use development with high-end shops, offices and condos. Under a land-swap agreement with the city, Astor Development bought the garage property to build upscale condos -- with the understanding the company would build a replacement garage nearby.

Astor picked the West Grove. That choice angered many of its residents, who not only felt shut out of the decision process, but also the benefits -- the free trolleys don’t serve the historically black area.

Dorothy Henry is one of those West Grove residents. She and her husband moved into their modest, coral pink, shotgun house in 1985. Since then, their family of seven has grown to include 17 grandkids. Henry echoes the worries of many of her fellow neighbors when she lists her concerns over having trolleys housed next door: increased pollution, noise and especially traffic.

Credit Arianna Prothero/WLRN

 “I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and my house is the house that they like to hang out in,” sitting on her front porch, Henry eyes the trolley garage that now rises over her property. An 8-foot wall stands right next to the house. “It’s like you’re in prison.”

That wall marks a hidden but critical dividing line, according to Miami’s planning director Francisco Garcia.  On one side of it, the land is zoned for commercial development. On the other, it’s zoned for houses.

Garcia explains there is no grey area between those two zones, a setup he says creates friction. It means there is no mid-level development, like a small apartment building to buffer the single-family homes from heavier development. “That is a problem we will have for a very long time,” he says.

Exactly what kind of building is allowed under the zoning code has been the subject of two separate lawsuits: one between West Grove residents, including Henry, and the city of Miami; the other between the city of Coral Gables and the development company, Astor.

But Garcia says the back-and-forth over the buildings allowed can hide the equally important issue of creating transitional zones in the city. He says the relatively new land-use plan, Miami 21, is trying to inject that extra buffer zone into the city’s current layout, but it’s a long process.

"The West Grove will continue to be vulnerable to the exploitation of developers even with the protections built into the codes like Miami 21." – Tony Alfieri

There’s another kind of fault line besides the one Garcia described. It lies between the cities of Coral Gables and Miami and is defined by demand, or lack of, for real-estate.

Ned Murray is the associate director at Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, a think tank for urban planning. He says the West Grove’s location puts it at risk of getting spillover development from Coral Gables or the significantly wealthier portions of Coconut Grove.

“If you are in a location where you’re abutting a high-demand real-estate development area, and your property values are lower, and your zoning is much more liberal, then obviously you may have more opportunity for something to happen in that location that may not be in the best interest of the community,” says Murray.

He warns that without careful urban planning, neighborhoods are developed in a haphazard, project-by-project basis. An, issue, Murray says, he often sees in Miami.

But the issue moves beyond real-estate demand, says Tony Alfieri  with the University of Miami’s law school, because of one simple fact: low-demand areas tend to be poor and black.

Click within the colored areas of the map to see the median household income data for the West Grove and Coral Gables. Click on the bus icons for images of the areas surrounding the new and old garages.

“Simply in terms of bare-knuckled power politics, the West Grove is defenseless,” says Alfieri, who also heads up UM’s Center for Ethics in Public Policy and founded the school’s Historic Black Church Program. Alfieri helped pull together the pro bono legal team that’s been helping West Grove residents fight the trolley garage.

“They don’t have resources, they don’t have an army of lawyers, they don’t have an army of accountants, an army of architects and consultants to assist them,” protections, Alfieri says, that Coral Gables and the East Grove both have. “The West Grove will continue to be vulnerable to the exploitation of developers even with the protections built into the codes like Miami 21.”

For now the garage is quiet, as Coral Gables and the developer try to work out a deal to build another trolley garage back on the original site in Coral Gables. Astor declined to comment for this story through its legal counsel because of the pending litigation and potential settlement.

Under the potential agreement, the trolleys may still have to stay in the West Grove for a few years. Resident Dorothy Henry thinks once they arrive, there’s a good chance they trolleys will never leave.

“West Grove is a small community made up of mostly blacks. We here don’t have a lot of money where we can fight the developers and I think we’re being used.” Henry pauses as she searches for the right words. “When you have power, you can fight power. But when you are powerless there’s not much you can do. You have to go by what they tell you and kind of accept it.”

A judge has given the city of Coral Gables and Astor Development until early May to work out a settlement. The lawsuit between the group of West Grove residents and the City of Miami is in appeal.