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2/3/03 - Miami Herald

Rebirth of the West Grove appears to have a better chance than ever

So near yet so far from one of Miami's most opulent corners is a neighborhood steeped in history but ravaged by decades of poverty and crime.

Although millions have been spent trying to revitalize the West Grove, it still contrasts sharply with its affluent neighbors, with 26 percent of residents living below the federal poverty level just blocks from the upscale CocoWalk mall and crowded cafes of downtown Coconut Grove.

But it's on the brink of change fueled by its prime location and a reduction in crime. According to the city, the crime rate has gone down 25 percent in the past five years, and property values have doubled during the past decade.

Now a consortium of high-powered agencies has been created by a core group of community activists to make sure everyone in the West Grove shares in the neighborhood's rebirth instead of being pushed out by gentrification.

The Coconut Grove Collaborative is trumpeting the community -- historically known as the Black Grove because of its 81 percent black population -- as an untapped resource, a place with the potential to become a prosperous business district and neighborhood.

''We want to create a community where residents can live and be proud. This is a place surrounded by extreme wealth -- and it should be participating in that prosperity,'' said Cecilia Holloman, a community-building expert brought here from New York to become executive director of the collaborative.

The group plans to rehabilitate decaying homes, develop affordable housing, attract successful businesses, beautify the neighborhood and offer community education programs.

To retain the neighborhood's Bahamian flavor, created by its original late-19th-century Bahamian settlers, the consortium plans to build tropical-themed buildings and a straw market similar to the famed one in Nassau.

The collaborative includes the University of Miami's Center for Urban and Community Design, the Knight Foundation, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, Miami-Dade County and Miami. It's led by community activist Jihad Rashid, who was elected its president.

The group has received $100,000 and two vacant lots from the city, and the county, federal government and Knight Foundation have committed to kicking in several thousand dollars more. The city also plans to give it foreclosed homes so they can be rehabilitated and turned into affordable housing.

Collaborative members, who have been meeting once a month for nearly a year, have already gone through the planning phase and are starting their projects.

Residents and business owners, who have become cynical because of past failed efforts, say they hold out hope that this time the collaborative can deliver on its promises.

''It seems as if downtown Coconut Grove is coming this way, and we are all very excited about it,'' said Walter Daniels, owner of Walter Alters, a barber shop, shoe repair and clothing alteration store on Grand Avenue, the area's main street.

``West Grove has been run down for far too long. We have been promised a lot but never saw plans move forward. But now we're finally seeing the plans we have been hearing about for the past 10 to 15 years come to fruition.''

But even with the backing of the consortium, it will not be an easy challenge to revive the West Grove. Past McDonald Street, which divides West Grove from Coconut Grove's thriving tourist district, is a community still mostly in decay -- crumbling homes, struggling businesses. Some lawns are trash-strewn. Homeless people roam about.

''There's a lot that needs to be done in this neighborhood,'' community activist Yvonne McDonald said. ``A lot of homes are in disrepair, and families have moved out because businesses have dried up.''

Numerous attempts have been made to spruce up the area, but a West Grove renaissance promised for years never materialized.

Two years ago, the city cut its ties with the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation, one of two agencies created in the aftermath of 1980s riots, because city leaders believed it had little to show for nearly $1 million in funding over 10 years.

''The frustration here is that people don't seem to want to move forward. Different factions are always squabbling over who has been here the longest. Bickering over minute stuff,'' said Danny Couch, who has lived in the West Grove since 1961. ``But now it's either be part of the program or progress is going to run you over.''

Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, who represents the area, has made revitalizing the West Grove a top priority. Change is already evident.

Among the improvements: Virrick Park, once a notorious haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, was cleaned up during a $3 million restoration project; abandoned homes that had turned into crack houses were shut down and rebuilt. City officials began cracking down on lax code enforcement. The first national chain in the community's history, CVS Pharmacy, opened its doors last month.

Housing values have skyrocketed, doubling or tripling in some areas. A home at 3146 Indiana St., a street already becoming gentrified, valued at $160,153 two years ago was sold for $401,000 five months ago. Another home at 3157 Indiana St. was valued at $92,500 in 2001 and sold for $220,000 last year, according to Miami-Dade property records.

Long-talked-about plans to landscape and widen the sidewalks along Grand Avenue to make it more pedestrian friendly and help turn it into a fertile commercial district are finally in the development stages, with roadwork expected to begin in October.

The area's appeal is augmented by a high-priced housing market, the development of the upscale Village of Merrick Park shopping center nearby in Coral Gables and a South Florida housing crunch as western development approaches its limit.

Land values in the area are already climbing. Andy Parrish, a local developer with offices in the West Grove, said empty lots worth $40,000 two years ago are already fetching $125,000. Homes within a block of the West Grove border have tripled in value the past five years, some now worth nearly a half-million dollars.

But some residents still are leery that they will not be part of the neighborhood's future. Some say all it will do is create gentrification, booting out longtime residents who will not be able to keep up with rising costs that will come with improvements.

''Whatever they plan to do, they don't plan to do it for the poor people. They are just trying to expand CocoWalk,'' said the Rev. Benjamin McKinney, a pastor at the Greater St. Paul AME Church in the West Grove. ``Our concern is when you displace these poor people, where are they going to go? . . . You're just pushing them out onto the street.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.