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Miami Herald – Sept. 16, 2005

Coconut Grove face-lift
isn't grand to all

Grand Avenue gets makeover, in part, to attract businesses


It's a little thing that suburban motorists won't notice. But the orange, green and beige welcome banners hanging on lampposts along Grand Avenue in the Village West section of Coconut Grove brighten the mood of its stoic residents.

Grand Avenue is a major business thoroughfare that connects disparate neighborhoods of Coconut Grove. McDonald Street separates the haves on the east from the have-nots to the west.

Now work crews are putting the last cosmetic touches to a long-awaited $4.2 million street beautification and revitalization project. The just over half-mile stretch of Grand Avenue now flows seamlessly from the quaint, working-class Village West into the affluent, posh environs of CocoWalk and Mayfair.

On Saturday, residents of Village West, officials from the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County and a Junkanoo band will parade along the avenue to mark completion of the project.

''It gives us a sense of being a part of the Grove,'' said Thelma Gibson, a former Miami commissioner and native Grovite. ``It's bringing us into the 21st century.''

For decades, residents believed they got short shrift in services.

About seven years ago several community groups teamed with architecture experts from the University of Miami and hatched a plan to remake Grand Avenue. Among their goals: preserve the district's historical black and Bahamian character, attract businesses, and deter gentrification.

Two of those goals may soon be realized. But forces beyond their control -- escalating property values, an increased number of home buyers who want to live near downtown Miami and a growing supply of residents who are as eager to sell -- threaten to change the neighborhood.


Civic leaders expect the street improvements and location to lure businesses. A day spa and print shop have come. So has a pizza shop, which is a huge feat, considering six years ago no one would deliver in the area for fear of crime.

Grand Avenue was supposed to be the commercial hub of the community. But more than anything, the four-lane roadway attracted motorists who zipped through as a shortcut to the east. The street also lured drug dealers.

''All it was was a thoroughfare,'' said Will Johnson, president of the West Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association and an aide to Metro Commissioner Carlos Gimenez. ``Traffic didn't slow down. Businesses weren't getting their share.''

The new streetscape addresses some of those issues. The roadway, home to the annual Goombay Festival each June, was narrowed from four lanes to two. Turning lanes were added at major intersections. Sidewalks were widened and benches added to attract pedestrians.

Johnny Winton, the Miami commissioner whose district includes Coconut Grove, said police will crack down on drug dealers. ''Once Grand [Avenue] gets completed, you have a new ambience. I think you're going to see more businesses wanting to locate on Grand and be part of the whole Coconut Grove scene,'' Winton said.

More changes are in store. Two years ago, developer Julio Marrero purchased low-rise apartment buildings and other businesses that have stood along Grand Avenue for decades. Families who lived in the neighborhood for generations sold their properties, tempted by the chance to profit from the land boom.

Marrero, a Coral Gables attorney, wants to replace the apartments with midrise condominium complexes where units would start at $325,000. Area activists expect that trend to continue.


In flux, however, are 500 apartment dwellers who were accustomed to paying $300 per month for one-bedroom apartments. New landlords are far less benevolent, said Wesley Truesdale, a longtime Grovite. Truesdale wishes he had purchased something. Rent on his one-bedroom apartment recently increased $25 per month, to $475. He figures he's lucky because rent in nearby buildings jumped $100 per month.

Truesdale is now looking for a new place, which likely will be outside the area.

''My neighbors are worried. Most of them are on welfare. They can't afford to go . . . anywhere else because the rent is high,'' said Truesdale, a single father of an 8-year-old son.

Yvonne McDonald, president of the nonprofit Urban Empowerment Corp., said it is a consequence of progress. ''It wasn't something we were anxiously looking forward to, but we knew it was going to happen,'' McDonald said.

A local advisory board is negotiating with developers to set aside some units for affordable ownership.

One possible bargaining tool is a rule put in place by the homeowners association that restricts building heights to no more than five stories.

Johnson said the association might bend those rules in return for their own wish: a small number of units in each building would be rented to current tenants.


The Grand Avenue makeover couldn't come soon enough for some homeowners, like Rosalyn Sparks.

She likes the new look, and welcomes the condominiums.

She figures that for the last six years homeowners and renters alike were warned of coming changes and the need to own their property.

''What's going on in the Grove is going on everywhere,'' Sparks said. ``The developers are investing and building condos. If you don't buy, you won't be able to stay here.''

Herald staff writer Laura Morales contributed to this report