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Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Safe Harbour In Coconut Grove

The exact moment the meeting exploded into chaos. Note
the police officer about to lead the angry gentleman away.
Last night I traveled down to Coconut Grove to attend a meeting of the Center Grove Homeowners Association. Fireworks were expected and I wanted to capture it as it happened. 

The reason for the potential fireworks was simple: many of the folks of Center Grove are vehemently against a proposed new development on the waterfront called Grove Harbour. [I like that it's spelled the way I would spell it.] Both Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff were on the agenda to sell their vision of the waterfront development and why this project is good for the community.


The exact moment the meeting exploded into chaos? When it was learned that both men skipped the meeting and Sarnoff sent his Chief of Staff, Ron Nelson, instead. That's when all the yelling and screaming started. A police officer had to escort one man who wanted answers out of the meeting. That's when most people left and the meeting devolved to wondering whether the meeting could be rescheduled so that [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Sarnoff and Mayor Regalado could address their own constituents, just like it said on the agenda.

Proposed Grove Harbour development
That's when I left as well, to go back to the footprint of what will become Grove Harbour to take another look see.

Back in August I wrote about Grove Harbour and how one of my faithful readers had urged me to get involved and come out against this latest Coconut Grove controversy. In that post, in which I stated I wasn't going to involve myself in this controversy I made this point, to quote myself:
I'm philosophically against any development on any waterfront anywhere in the world: It blocks access to the waterfront, no matter how small the waterfront or the development. I am reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright who loved to build on hills, but said you should never build on top of a hill because you lose the hill. Same thing in my opinion.
One of 5 former airplane hangers in the footprint of Grove Harbour
However, I've been reconsidering my decision not to get involved in this controversy. The impetus for reversing my stand not to get involved was a brief exchange I had with Coconut Grove Village Councilor Michelle Niemeyer, who is backing the project. Neimeyer is someone for whom I have a great amount of respect. That's what first got me thinking, "If she's for it, how bad can it be? What am I missing?" However, I also realized that she's a sailor and, because of that, she may have a conflict of interest on a project that includes amenities for the Coconut Grove boating crowd.

However, I had a crazy thought. I contacted Michelle and asked her whether she would show me around and walk me through the footprint of what will become Grove Harbour. She was happy to do it. To that end we met early Monday evening, appropriately at Scotty's Landing, which is not only Ground Zero for the Grove Harbour development, but also Ground Zero for the entire controversy; because Grovites wanted to save the venerated crappy restaurant with the crappy food that everyone complained about before it appeared they would lose it. That's when the "Save Scotty's" campaign started.

SPOILER ALERT: I am now, conditionally, in favour of the project.

What I said above still stands. Philosophically I believe the waterfront belongs to the people and, whenever possible, waterfront should be grass and park as far as the eye can see. However, I also listed 12 edicts I would make if I were to suddenly become Emperor of Coconut Grove. The first of which said:
1). Raze every building on the east side of South Bayshore Drive from McFarlane through David T. Kennedy Park, except those few that have historic designation.
Dinner Key back in the day, with the Pan AM terminal in
the foreground and airplane hangers in the background.
And, therein lies one of the rubs of any proposed development along the Coconut Grove waterfront. Back in the day when Dinner Key was the location for the Pan American Airlines Clipper Ship flights, the company built the building that now houses Miami City Hall, as well as 5 massive airplane hangers. After Pan Am moved off Dinner Key, the airplane hangers were converted into marine use, a function they've served ever since.

Approximately 15 years ago then Commissioner J.L. Plummer used a pocket item (something placed on the agenda at the last minute) at a commission meeting to push for a mixed-use highrise development for Dinner Key. A group of Grovites were aghast at the idea of a massive development on Dinner Key. Springing into action they had the 5 airplane hangers registered on the index of National Historic Buildings. What this means is that these 5 former-airplane hangers will be there until Coconut Grove freezes over. Those buildings are represented on the site plan (above) by the orange rectangles. The 6th orange rectangle is the current Miami City Hall.

[Additionally, removing them would be a monumental job. While they are just large, hollow, aluminum buildings -- with little to recommend them architecturally-speaking -- the concrete pad on which the hangers were build are 8 feet thick.]

A list of just some of the public meetings asking for input from the community
This is just one of the many interesting facts I learned as Michelle Niemeyer and I spent the next few hours discussing the Grove Harbour development and walking the entire perimeter, as well as all through it. My first surprise was that Neimeyer was part of the team that sought public input and, as Chair, helped pilot this unwieldy ship of a project through the shoals of citizen involvement to come up with a master plan that was agreeable to as many of the citizens as possible. To that end there it took approximately 40 public meetings to come up with the Coconut Grove Waterfront Master Plan. [PDF] This Master Plan was the blueprint for the public bidding process to develop the waterfront.

Where were the people during the public input process who are now protesting vociferously against this project? Every one of them could have had their say at the public meetings that were not only publicized, but stretched over a period of several years. It seems a little late now that the boat left the berth.

Follow THIS LINK for a full series of PDF files
on the Master Plan and winning and losing bids

However, the citizens of Miami will have one more kick at the can: A November referendum puts the final project on the ballot. If the citizens of the small hamlet of Coconut Grove can convince enough Miamians to vote against this project, it's dead in the water. However, I don't believe they have a hope in hell of derailing this project, to mix metaphors. Coconut Grove is a miniscule part of Miami proper. It will be like sailing into the wind to get enough people to vote against this project.

When I was finished with Niemeyer's walking tour I had a much better understanding of the issues involved. I also was able to decide for myself about the plan for Grove Harbour. It's my opinion that what is being proposed for the waterfront is 1000% better than what is currently there. Here are some of my reasons for coming to that conclusion:

► It's not as if they are taking pristine land and turning it into a huge development. The entire area is already developed. Grove Harbour simply makes it far more people friendly.

► Many people are disturbed by the proposed parking garage, which will be located as close to South Bayshore Drive as possible. However, the parking garage eliminates acres of hardscape, which are currently used as parking lots, next to parking lots, which are beside parking lots. Almost all of that reclaimed area will become grass and parkland.

The Chart House Bunker from the water
► Anything that gets rid of The Chart House can only be considered a good thing. This is easily one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen, masquerading as a fine dining restaurant. People call it "The Bunker" and that's not an inaccurate description. While it might look nice on the inside and have great views of Biscayne Bay, from the outside it's a monstrosity that never should have been built. At the bay side walkway there is an 8 foot berm that's totally inappropriate for the waterfront. To be fair: While I say good riddance, Curbed Miami has a differing view and believes it's a wonderful example of organic architecture. I don't see organic. I see something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

► New laws that went into effect after Scotty's Landing and The Chart House were built now requite a minimum of 50 feet as a public easement along the waterfront for pedestrians. Currently both of these restaurants are virtually on the edge of the water. The Grove Harbour plan will make the pedestrian walkway much more of a boardwalk, without the boards.

One of several boat racks in the current footprint of the proposed development
► The proposed plan creates much safer pedestrian walkways that bisect Grove Harbour and cross perpendicularly. Currently families with children and strollers are forced to walk through one of the boatyards to get from the parking lot to the waterfront. This is where boats are being shunted in and out of the water by giant forklifts and a terrible accident is always a possibility there.

►The Grove Harbour plan creates a seamless walkway from Peacock Park all the way to Kennedy Park, with plenty of amenities for families, boaters, joggers, and cyclists alike.

Having said all that, there are a few things I do not like about Grove Harbour. My biggest concern is the building itself:

Looking west through Grove Harbour, showing one of the pedestrian walkways bisecting the development

The parking garage viewed from South Bayshore Drive, showing retail on the ground floor

Call me crazy, but I think a development on the water should somehow reflect the sense of place. I've seen buildings on waterfronts that, at first glance, seem to be large sailboats. It's only on the second glance that you realize it's a building. I don't see this glass and chrome building as saying anything about Biscayne Bay. It's a building that could be dropped anywhere else in Magic City and not seem out of place. Here it does, to my eyes. The only accommodation made to the site is the floor to ceiling glass walls, through which visitors will have unimpeded views of Biscayne Bay.

I am told the choice of materials used for Grove Harbour was meant to reflect the aluminum construction of the former-airplane hangers. Again, I don't see it. The airplane hangers have a funky feel, while the renderings of Grove Harbour remind me of glitzy Vegas.

Another concern I have is about the retail space in the project. There are already empty storefronts in Center Grove, just blocks away. Could the Grove Harbour retail harm struggling businesses in Coconut Grove? It's possible, but only time will tell. Originally the RFP was supposed to call for marine-related retail, but an editing error appears to have left it out, which leaves it open to any retail. However, a previous marine retail outlet failed in one of the hangers, so maybe that error is not such a bad thing. One of the retail outlets that seems the most welcome is a convenience store. Currently those who live on their boats in the harbour have a huge hike just to get a gallon of milk. This will alleviate them having to get in a car just to get a bottle of pop.
This peacock stands guard outside Fresh Market
Furthermore, there's already retail in the footprint of Grove Harbour. In the northernmost hanger is a Fresh Market, which appears to be doing good business and will remain.

I think it's unfortunate that so many rumours are being circulated about this development. It's not a "mall," as it's being constantly described on the Coconut Grove Grapevine. The Grapevine has come out solidly against Grove Harbour and has given plenty of its blog real estate to promoting the antis.

One wonders where all these people were when there was an opportunity to have input into the project.

This is what it's all about: A view of Biscayne Bay