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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part 9.1 ► A Bad Neighbour Photo Essay

The Charles Avenue historical marker,
Sept. 14, 2012
In my efforts to save the E.W.F. Stirrup House, I have had to do a great deal of research, with still far more to go. It seems like it might never end. However, it has allowed me to meet both good neighbours to bad neighbours.

This quixotic quest began in 2009 when I stumbled across the Charles Avenue historical marker (at left) on my first ever trip to Coconut Grove. See how the marker is currently being maintained -- or not being maintained, as the case may be? Grass and weeds have, once again, been allowed to grow 3 feet high around the marker. One can barely see the flowering plant that was added to decorate and beautify the spot. That tiny splash of red to the right of the marker is not a flower; it's the informational card from the nursery attached to the plant showing what the flowers will look like if the plant is ever allowed to mature.


The E.W.F. Stirrup House, Sept. 14, 2012
In 2009, after I read the sign honouring the original Bahamians who settled the area, I turned to see the E.W.F. Stirrup House for the very first time. The house was so beautiful that it captured my heart the moment I saw it. It looks nothing like any of the other houses in the area and was clearly older than the rest of the neighbourhood. I had to find out why such a beautiful house was sitting empty and being allowed to rot away.

That was more than three years ago. Since then, my research has taken me down some very strange paths, none of which could have been predicted when I began. On the positive side, I have made some very interesting friends along Charles Avenue, who provide me with first-hand accounts of what the neighbourhood was like in times gone by. On the negative side: I have also made some very powerful enemies within the power structure of Coconut Grove and the City of Miami.

Charles Avenue is 30 miles due south of where I live, but I try to get down to record the changes, or lack thereof, at least once a week, if not more. What follows is a photo essay of my most recent visit on September 14, 2012. I'll start at the Grove Garden Residence Condominiums and work my way around this multimillion dollar condo complex.

The Taurus Bar sits in front of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums and was apparently saved from the wreckers ball by the good citizens of Coconut Grove, who didn't want to lose their venerated drinking establishment. The building began it's life around 1906 as a tea room, but only later became a bar. One of the reasons the Taurus Bar was so popular with the residents was because it had a parking lot, as most of the other bars in Coconut Grove did not. Since parking in Coconut Grove can be costly, the Taurus became popular almost by default. [We'll just try and forget that whole drinking and driving thing that the parking lot may have encouraged.] However, the parking lot is also what made the plot of land attractive to developers, who managed to acquire it, and 2 contiguous lots along Franklin Avenue, in order to build the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums.

As the story goes, when the first plans were submitted to the City of Miami to build the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums, the drinkers who frequented the Taurus Bar rallied to save it from the wreckers ball, and so it was. There is no other logical explanation as to why a multimillion dollar condo complex was built around a crappy little 100-year old building.

From Main Highway the multimillion dollar Grove Garden Residence Condominiums, with its two high-end restaurants, Taurus Bar, and valet parking, mimics (to my eyes) Cape Cod architecture. From the street it looks clean and beautiful. If you had the money, or could borrow it, you might be happy to pay nearly a million dollars to live on the upper floors. Looking east you would be able to see over the multimillion dollar houses on the other side of Main Highway in the very exclusive gated community of Camp Biscayne (which I keep meaning to write about). You would have an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay and Key Biscayne, with Miami Beach way off in the distance. To look out over the Atlantic Ocean, especially at sunrise, would almost be worth paying that kind of money for.
However, you wouldn't want to look out your side windows, or off your balcony, towards the E.W.F. Stirrup property immediately to the north of your million dollar condo. These windows would not have the same million dollar Atlantic Ocean view. You would see little more than a garbage dump, with trash and weeds and the roof of the E.W.F. Stirrup House being overrun by vines.

Those are not bushes or trees in the background. They are vines and weeds run amok, creating huge bowers underneath where more piles of trash can be hidden away from the prying eyes of city inspectors. Every one of those trash piles is a by-law infraction, yet the property never seems to get cited anymore, as happened a few years back. Is it possible that someone is being paid off, or is it just that city inspectors are not doing their job properly?

My suspicions lean towards the former, not the latter. Why else would my complaint to the building department (Complaint #1200243103) have been dismissed without any notation and no follow-up? Why do all my phone calls and messages to the City of Miami get swallowed by a Black Hole and never returned? Why have my emails not been returned?

Some of these piles of trash on the Stirrup property have been there for years and just get bigger, while some are relatively new. Lately there always seems to be a dumpster on the property, but that hasn't stopped piles of garbage from growing week after week as new piles appear.
New to the piles of garbage this week is a kitchen sink and a refrigerator, which have been piled on top of the garbage that was there last week. This is the ground-level view of what can be seen from those million dollar condos in the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums.
Since the dumpster is now full, there's no place else to put the garbage, except to scatter it around the property in several discrete piles. If you paid nearly a million dollars to buy a condo, you might be frustrated at having to look down upon this growing mess. However, unless you were paying close attention you'd never know that the person responsible for this mess on your doorstep is the same developer that built your condominium, owns your building, and owns the high-end restaurants on the ground floor of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums. Nor would you know that the developer acquired the 50-year lease on the E.W.F. Stirrup Property by apparently swapping two units (#403 and #304) in your building for the lease, giving the developer the exclusive right to turn the property into a garbage dump right below your windows.

What's more: When the plans were first submitted to the City of Miami to build the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums there was also an outcry from Black Coconut Grove -- or West Grove as it is nominally called -- to save the E.W.F. Stirrup House, just like there was an outcry from White Coconut Grove to save the Taurus Bar. Several neighbours along Charles Avenue have told me they distinctly remember a promise from the developers to renovate the E.W.F. Stirrup House to be used as a combination Community/Historical Resource Center. 

The developer had to make some promises in order to get the final building permits; all developers do. It's just the nature of the game. However, whatever promises were made concerning the E.W.F. Stirrup House, the developer has reneged. The head of security for the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums happened to let slip one day (when he thought I was merely a tourist who had inadvertently wandered onto the property) that the developer "ran out of money" before he got to renovating the E.W.F. Stirrup House. They clearly didn't run out of money before they finished the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums or the high-end restaurants on the ground floor. There was certainly enough financing available to swap two units within the building to acquire the 50-year lease on the property.
Aries Development, owned in part by Gino Falsetto, was part of the development team that built the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums and also owns (in part) the Taurus Bar, as well as the two high end restaurants Calamari and La Bottega on the ground floor. Aries Development also now holds a 50-year lease on the E.W.F. Stirrup House. According to E.W.F. Stirrup's will, the house must remain in the family, and so it apparently has through an entity called "Stirrup Properties, Inc." owned by descendants of E.W.F. Stirrup. However, by swapping two units within the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums Gino Falsetto, through his Aries Development company, has acquired control of the property with a 50-year lease. He wants to turn the house into a Bed and Breakfast, which I doubt is what E.W.F. Stirrup had in mind with that provision in his will. Yet, the property does not seem to be zoned Commercial and a Bed and Breakfast would be a nonconforming use.

No matter, because I have always thought the real, unspoken, plan by Gino Falsetto is to allow the E.W.F. Stirrup House to undergo Demolition by Neglect, despite it being prohibited by Sec. 16A-13.1. of the Miami-Dade County Regulations. The law reads in part:
Affirmative Maintenance Required. The owner of a property designated pursuant to this chapter either individually or as a contributing part of a district shall comply with all applicable codes, laws and regulations governing the maintenance of property. It is the intent of this section to preserve from deliberate or inadvertent neglect the exterior features of such properties and the interior portions thereof when maintenance is necessary to prevent deterioration and decay of the property. All such properties shall be preserved against such decay and deterioration and shall be free from structural defects through prompt corrections of any of the following defects: [...]
If the City of Miami comes along, however, and says the E.W.F. Stirrup House is too far gone to save -- after all these years of purposeful neglect -- and must therefore be condemned, it opens up another large piece of property for Aries Development to develop. The only winner would be Aries Development, who created the problem to begin with.

In the meantime, it's clear that Bad Neighbour Gino Falsetto thinks the E.W.F. Stirrup property is his own personal dumping ground. Where this garbage is coming from is a mystery to me, since I have been inside the E.W.F. Stirrup House and none of this garbage seems to have come from inside the house. The Bad Neighbour also doesn't seem to think that he should be cleaning the property from even the simplest of wind-blown trash and other litter.
This is the same flyer I have documented as being in front of the E.W.F. Stirrup House for the last 5 weeks, since August 20, 2012. It started with bright colours, but has now grown faded. Now it is nearly covered in leaves and it won't be long before it will be buried completely. Then it will start the process of composting. Only a bad neighbour would ignore a flyer right in front of their house.
This Red Stripe 6-pack carton has been in the middle of the driveway for at least 4 weeks. It has now lost most of its colour, but was bright red the first time I photographed it on August 25, 2012.
Standing on the same spot as the Red Stripe garbage and turning to the right, you will see the same litter that was around the tree last week. It would take almost no time at all for a good neighbour to clean this crap up, but only a bad neighbour would allow litter to accumulate week after week after week.

It's been at least three weeks since this pizza box arrived in front of the E.W.F. Stirrup House, where it has remained ever since.
Several weeks ago one of the workers with access to the property appeared to have sat on the front steps of the E.W.F. Stirrup House to eat his lunch. When finished, he left behind his drink cup and some other trash, where it has remained ever since. It has become such a part of the front of the house that even the critters are familiar and comfortable with it. Hello gecko.
This is the wall that separates the multimillion dollar Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums from the E.W.F. Stirrup property. Within the last month vandals have tagged the wall with graffiti. While I don't condone graffiti, the miscreants might be forgiven in thinking they were merely decorating a garbage dump, considering the deplorable condition in which Aries Development has left the property.

This is a City of Miami by-law infraction. A property owner is responsible for making sure that graffiti is covered over and not allowed to remain. However, the owner of record is "Stirrup Properties, Inc.," which has ceded control of the property to Aries Development. Who would be fined if it ever went that far? The owner of record, of course, not the company that holds the lease.

That's one of the supreme ironies of this whole situation. Aries Development and Gino Falsetto will not be cited, fined, or have a lien attached to their property (one of the remedies in the law cited above) by allowing Demolition by Neglect to occur on the property. It will be the owners of record, "Stirrup Property, Inc.," who traded a 50-year lease on the property for two condos within the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums. They also traded the good name of E.W.F. Stirrup for a chance to be cited by the city for non-compliance of City of Miami by-laws. I am sure that Gino Falsetto is fully aware of these facts and is, in all likelihood, counting on it. That will allow him to swoop in and become the saviour, at a cost. Just like he did with the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which sits catercorner to the E.W.F. Stirrup House.

Piles of garbage on a property are also a by-law infraction. These piles have been sitting there for at least a month. Once again the owner of record, Stirrup Properties, Inc., would be cited and/or fined if it ever came to that. The lack of upkeep on the landscaping is also a by-law infraction. While it's hard to tell from this angle some of the weeds on the property are more than 3 feet high, which means the grass has not been cut in well over a month. Again, the owner of record, Stirrup Properties, Inc., is responsible for the upkeep of the property, no matter who actually is controlling the property.

A close-up of just one of the piles of trash along the wall that separates the E.W.F. Stirrup property from the multimillion dollar Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums. While it might not be visible from the condos, seeing as how it's directly underneath, it is clearly visible from the street. Why have the property owners not been cited by now? I believe it's because the fix is in and Gino Falsetto, and his layers of companies, are protected by someone at City Hall. Nothing else makes sense. The question becomes: Who is he paying off?

Here's what happens if you don't have the money to pay someone off: I recently interviewed a gentleman living near the west end of Charles Avenue who was cited just last week by the City of Miami. He received a registered letter from the City of Miami for the weeds that are 3-4 feet high on the vacant lot next to his property. The registered letter gave him 10 days to remedy the infraction. He's not planning to take any action to remedy the infraction because he does not own the vacant lot next door. The citation, with his name and street address on it was issued to him in error. He is hoping the City of Miami realizes its mistake before it fines him and attaches a lien against the house in which he has lived for the past 73 years, since his birth. He is also hoping he doesn't have to pay to hire a lawyer to straighten out the city's mistake.

However, the question needs to be asked: If this gent has been mistakenly cited for tall grass on a neighbouring property, why hasn't the owner of the E.W.F. Stirrup House been cited REPEATEDLY for the garbage and weeds allowed to accumulate on the E.W.F. Stirrup property?
Maybe it's because Gino Falsetto is a multimillion dollar developer, which brings us back to where we started. The Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums presents such a beautiful front to the street, yet hides piles and piles of garbage on the E.W.F. Stirrup property. This is Gino Falsetto's dirty secret. If the people in the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums ever realize that the owner of their own building is also the same culprit who created a trash heap in their doorstep, they might have him tarred and feathered. The condition of the E.W.F. Stirrup House, and surrounding property, lowers the property values of the million dollar condos they purchased from him, not to mention all the houses along Charles Avenue.

However, if you're willing to ignore the deplorable condition of the E.W.F. Stirrup property and only focus on the front of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums, it is as pretty as a picture postcard . . .

. . . with its expensive restaurants on the ground floor and valet parking.

In the past few months I've had several arguments, with several people, on whether the restaurants on the ground floor of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums are expensive. Maybe I'm just cheap, but I think a Sunday brunch that starts at $25.00 is not inexpensive. What do you think? If brunch starts at $25.00, can you imagine what the dinners go for?
However, lest we forget what this is all about: This entire project is about saving the E.W.F. Stirrup House from the rapacious developer Gino Falsetto and to rehabilitate the legacy of a Bahamian man who was well ahead of his time.

In the late 1800s Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup had this wild idea that home ownership was important for growing Black families. To that end E.W.F. Stirrup, one of Florida's first Black millionaires and a man who once owned a great part of Coconut Grove, built more than 100 houses in the area and rented and sold them to Black families, which made Coconut Grove unique from all the other Black neighbourhoods in the States because it had a higher percentage of Black home ownership than anywhere else in this country.
Clearly E.W.F. Stirrup was a proud man. He built this 2-story house, in a 1-story neighbourhood, and intended it to be a showplace. Developer Gino Falsetto has done everything in his power to let it rot away.

At one time the E.W.F. Stirrup House looked out over Mr. Stirrup's vast real estate holdings, which he appears to have sold off piece by piece until this double lot is all that remains. Over the years Coconut Grove has become one of the most exclusive Zip Codes in the entire country. Yet, this small pocket of Coconut Grove -- Black Coconut Grove -- has remained impoverished and wanting. It has not kept up with the rest of the the Grove and the simple one-story houses along Charles Avenue, and the surrounding streets, are ripe for the kind of gentrification that inevitably comes to all neighbourhoods.

However, it would be a damned shame if the E.W.F. Stirrup House was not saved to represent the original community of Bahamians who worked in the service of, and helped White Coconut Grove to prosper. However, as I believe the plan has always been Demolition by Neglect for the Stirrup House, the same might be said for the rich cultural history of the original Bahamian community who settled here and, as the Charles Avenue historical marker puts it, "Their first hand experience with tropical plants and building materials proved invaluable to the development of Coconut Grove."

This is what I am trying to save, no small task.