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Opinion: Will Grand Avenue ever be Grand again?

Anthony Parrish is a current member of the City of Miami Planning Zoning & Appeals Board and past chair of the Historic & Environmental Preservation Board. He has developed new Bahamian-styled housing and commercial buildings in Little Bahamas for several decades. He wrote this opinion piece for the Spotlight.

Thirty years ago, I had just finished developing a small warehouse in Doral with my friend general contractor Mario Benitez and convinced him to take a drive with me through Little Bahamas, also known as Village West Island District, West Grove, and the Black Grove. After cruising the neighborhood, I asked him, “If you were a bird flying over Dade County, what would you say is the best located, least developed, high and dry land close to Metrorail and the airport, and within a half mile of the bay?”

“What do you have in mind?” Mario asked.

“Let’s build some houses,” I replied.

A year later after working closely with the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation headed by David Alexander, we built the first of 18 “homes for ownership” by low-income Black families, all of whom were renters in the neighborhood. At auction we bought our first vacant lot for $2,500. We were the only bidders, probably because the adjoining house was the “business office” of a well-known drug dealer.

There we built and sold a 1,500-square-foot three-bedroom/two-bathroom house for $77,900 to a female postal worker from an old West Grove family. The city created and provided a “soft second” mortgage at 1% for half the purchase price. Northern Trust Bank provided a market rate first mortgage for the other half, with a $3,000 cash down payment from the postal worker. Shortly thereafter, the drug dealer moved away (after the postal worker called the police every day), and her cousin bought the drug house, which Mario then renovated. Today, after more than two decades, these same two homeowners are regularly offered a half million dollars and more to sell their homes.

Why is this important? Because it sheds light on what is happening now, both in the residential areas of Little Bahamas, but also on the disgraceful vacant blocks of the ironically named Grand Avenue, sometimes called “The Land that Time Forgot.” But it’s never really been forgotten, just put on the far back burner of Miami’s blazing development stove because of the stubborn resistance of homeowners like that postal worker and her cousin, and a couple of dozen deeply rooted historic families including those in the Macfarlane Homestead Historic District of “Black Gables.” You see, the real behind the scenes, never spoken of, conscious and subconscious, hidden agenda for the entire area has always been “Get the Negroes out of there, and the area will bloom.”

That is why the City of Miami has never truly enforced the Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD 2) overlay put in the Miami 21 Code to help protect and preserve the Bahamian character of the neighborhood from obscene travesties like the two Day Avenue “white boxes” built just 4 feet from each other instead of the 10 feet required by the 5-foot setback for each in Miami 21 (“Oops, that was just a mistake in permitting so we city commissioners have to settle the lawsuit rather than require demolition”) while the half dozen other “Star Wars” houses on Day are deemed “Bahamian Modern” architecture. Just drive each street between 32nd Ave. and U.S. 1, and what do you think the message is to the dwindling number of Black residents? You can also see the long-closed Virrick Pool finally being rebuilt to “serve the residents,” now being mainly the ones buying the new expensive townhouses.

In 2002, community residents came together for a weeklong charrette and published a Vision Plan for the redevelopment of a West Grove business corridor on Grand Avenue. In keeping with that vision, Mario and I bought the defunct Gils Spot Bar and redesigned it as a two-story retail building to face Grand instead of Douglas Road. Meanwhile, the city and county reconfigured Grand Avenue somewhat, but did nothing else called for in the Vision Plan except include some of its illustrations in the NCD 2 section of the new Miami 21 Code adopted in 2010. That new zoning permits mixed-use commercial, office, and residential development with a five-story, 75-foot height limitation. Given the cost of land (now $200-plus per square foot), this is appropriate zoning, and maybe even more appropriate than the two- and three-story buildings in the Vision Plan, but only if there is adequate public parking.

Little Bahamas has been asking for a public parking garage to support neighborhood retail for as long as I can remember, even as long ago as the fearless activist Esther Mae Armbrister told former Commissioner J.L. Plummer to stop calling the neighborhood “West Grove,” saying “It’s the Black Grove, Commissioner, and stop trying to steal it from us!”

Without parking, few customers will drive to and patronize stores. People like to park close to where they shop, and on-street parking is always limited by the amount of frontage each lot has. The owner of Go Green Document Solutions, one of the few surviving businesses in Little Bahamas, lost his only two street parking spaces when the city put “No Parking” signs in front of his shop. When asked why the Department of Off-street Parking (DOSP) has never built a parking garage to serve Grand and Douglas stores, former DOSP director Art Noriega (now Miami’s city manager) told me, “There’s no demand. People won’t pay to park there.” To which I replied, “Of course they won’t, until there are stores where they want to shop.” He did build a 22-space surface parking lot, though, on the southwest corner of Grand and Douglas, where hardly anyone parked until the county recently moved its social services office to the southeast corner.

That brings us back to why Grand Avenue is an ongoing wasteland. To his credit, one developer, Peter Gardner, planned to do “community-sensitive” development until his lender went bankrupt in 2008 and a sewer moratorium stopped all development for over a year. Parking was a major obstacle for that developer, which he tried to solve partly by buying and rezoning adjacent lots on the residential streets behind Grand. Building multi-level parking, with elevators, stair access, and sprinkler systems is expensive, up to $50,000 per space, plus the building then must be taller overall. With the right-of-way for Grand Avenue being only 75 feet wide, and the lots facing Grand only 90 feet deep, you risk having buildings taller than the street is wide, as in Brickell. Compounding the problem is that Miami 21 allows no parking relief for commercial properties close to transit hubs because all the Grand and Douglas lots are within 500 feet of T3-R single family homes.

Without a public parking garage or parking waivers, the only economically possible way to provide parking under Miami 21 is to increase density, which means “going up.” I fully expect the current well-financed speculative owners of Grand Avenue properties to ask the City Commission to upzone to T6-8 zoning at a maximum height of eight stories, which, if  some “affordable rental units” are offered by the developer, could allow up to 12-story buildings. The incentive for those developers to build the expensive parking will be the top six floors having “the cheapest bay views in Miami.” They won’t remain cheap for long, and neither will what remains of the surrounding neighborhood.

Once upzoned, you will have new retail and condos on Grand Avenue and Douglas Road, where once you had walkable mom-and-pop stores like Jack’s Garage, Bernice’s Soul Food Restaurant, the Grand Café, the Merry Christmas Club, Gils Spot, Walter Alter’s tailor and barber shop, the Ace Theater, Bain’s Funeral Home, the Tiki Club, the Roberts Building community school, and many more. This bygone era is well-documented in Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson’s book Forbearance, the Life story of a Coconut Grove Native. The neighborhood back then was not rich except in community spirit and neighborliness. It also had its pride and joy, Carver High School, which was sacrificed as part of mandatory school integration.

Instead of upzoning Grand, the best—and fairest—solution for everyone, including current owners of Grand Avenue properties, would be for the city to build a parking garage with a mix of housing near Grand and Douglas, where the defunct Tiki Club and abandoned DOSP Lot 25 have been for six decades. This could be combined with an irresistible carrot to developers that amends (not downzones) the current T5-O zoning to provide expedited permit approval, impact fee waivers, and allowances for additional parking relief for any new construction that implements the Vision Plan.

Then we would see Grand Avenue bloom again—finally, for everyone.

To view a section of the Vision Plan that illustrates a revitalized Grand Avenue, click here. 

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