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Miami Herald - February 27, 2007

Coconut Grove affordable development deal expires

A year ago, several Village West nonprofits agreed to support developments along Grand Avenue. But a time limit ran out, and the deal is now back to square one.


The Coconut Grove Village West community and a group of developers that hopes to build projects on Grand Avenue may be experiencing an extreme case of déjà vu.

The developers, headed by Coral Gables attorney Julio Marrero, bought properties along five blocks of Grand Avenue in 2002 and 2003, with the intent of building 12-story, mixed-use condos.

The projects would have uprooted many living in apartments as well as landmarks like the Range Funeral Home.

But the developments stalled with the 2005 City of Miami approval of a measure that capped developments in the neighborhood at five stories. The ''Neighborhood Conservation District'' was an attempt to preserve its traditional, Bahamian feel. Concerned about gentrification, several Village West nonprofits agreed on a deal with developers that gave $3 million to the community in exchange for its support for five, seven-story buildings. The deal also said that 25 percent of the units sold would go to Village West residents at affordable prices.

But the time-sensitive agreement hinged on the resolution of a lawsuit Marrero filed against the city concerning the height cap.

And now residents, developers and the city have found themselves back where they started.

''We're back to square one again after wasting a tremendous amount of time and money,'' Marrero said.

Marrero and his partners were negotiating a deal with the city, but are tired of delays and now plan to resume litigation, Marrero said. Meanwhile, they've put the lots back up for sale.

The Village West groups took some heat from other Grovites for supporting what some said would set a precedent for a concrete canyon on Grand Avenue.

''It took years and years to develop the NCD [Neighborhood Conservation District],'' said Gary Hecht, chairman of the Cocoanut Grove Village Council. ``Anything above five stories we're opposed to.''

Will Johnson, president of the Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association, said the community groups believed that if the developer built at five stories, the projects would likely be unaffordable for Village West residents.

Johnson said that many residents left the area when they first heard of the developments, and while others have lost interest in the issue, some want the developers to sell their lots and leave.

Talks between the community and Marrero have resumed, led by the Coconut Grove Collaborative and its President and CEO, Jihad Rashid. The collaborative's goal, Rashid said, is to make the developments affordable for the developer and community at five stories with subsidies from the collaborative, banks and the city.

''We're coming with the concept that the developer can't saddle the responsibility of affordability alone,'' Rashid said. ``This is going to take the private sector, the community and the public sector in a compromising fashion to make it work.''

Marrero has said the projects are unrealistic at five stories because the lots are thin, meaning he has to include floors of parking.

District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff met Tuesday with Rashid and a group of possible investors to discuss the subsidies, along with other projects.

District 2 receives little of the grant money Rashid hopes for and the amount is reduced every year, Sarnoff said, adding he's not likely to support seven stories.

''I didn't get into office to put up large buildings,'' he said.

Besides placing the properties up for sale, Marrero has raised rents to cut down on losses accumulating from the property taxes he pays each month. Meanwhile, empty lots owned by the developers remain just that -- empty and strewn with garbage