Planning — June 2014
Whose Trolly Is It?
In Miami, a transportation facility prompts a civil rights suit.
By Susannah Nesmith
When the city of Coral Gables and a developer reached an agreement to move a downtown trolley garage to make way for a luxury condo development, it seemed like a win-win for everyone involved. The developer got access to valuable land in tony Coral Gables and, in exchange, agreed to build the city a new trolley garage just outside of Coral Gables, in the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove. The city's tax base would expand, the popular free trolley service would continue, and the developer would make a lot of money.
But not everyone affected by the complicated deal had an opportunity to be involved. The residents of the historically black Miami neighborhood where the new garage was built weren't asked their opinion. They didn't even get trolley service, although they will have to put up with the trolleys trundling through their neighborhood once an hour.
In October 2013, the Federal Transit Administration ruled that both cities had violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in selecting and approving the site of the garage and that Miami-Dade County, which administered the federal transit grants both cities received for trolleys, was also in violation. The garage also prompted two lawsuits, months of costly delays, and a slew of bad publicity for the cities and the developer.
"We didn't get any say in this," says Clarice Cooper, who lives across the street from the new garage, which has been completed but can't open. "Something always happens in the black community — something is always thrust on us."
Cooper and several other residents of Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood first tried to get the city of Miami to overturn its zoning decision to allow the garage. When that failed, a group of residents sued and Cooper filed the civil rights complaint. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2013 — a ruling the residents have appealed. The findings of the FTA prompted Coral Gables to sue the developer, claiming he did not comply with the contract between them.
Meanwhile, the cluster of small homes, a four-unit apartment building, and a line of small stores across the street from Cooper's home are gone, replaced by a block-long, two-story garage. It faces a busy thoroughfare, but its entrance and exit are both located on quiet residential streets. That's part of the problem, according to Cooper.
"It doesn't fit with the neighborhood," Cooper says. "The developer wanted to assure us we weren't going to see anything, we weren't going to hear anything, we weren't going to smell anything. But that can't be true."
In addition to the noise and traffic, she's worried about the trolleys' diesel fumes.
The Federal Transit Administration found that no one on the staffs of either Coral Gables or Miami was aware of the Civil Rights Act's requirements and that neither city had a compliance plan. The FTA ruled that both cities "failed to conduct the necessary outreach and analysis to determine if the Coconut Grove maintenance facility location complies with Civil Rights law," a spokeswoman for the agency said via e-mail.
"The complaint related to the location of the trolley maintenance facility in Coconut Grove, Miami, is the first of its kind that we have received. Typically, the environmental impacts of proposed transit facilities are evaluated and addressed during the National Environmental Policy Act process," the spokeswoman said. Most complaints are related to service cuts or fare increases. The agency is working with Miami-Dade County to come up with a plan to remedy the situation.
Coral Gables and Miami officials disagreed with the FTA findings. "We think the FTA has overreached," Coral Gables city attorney Craig Leen says. "The requirement that you do a siting study for one of these facilities was in a 2012 circular. We sited this before that came out."
However, the earlier circular, issued in 2007, also said agencies should involve minority communities in transit decisions that affect them.
Coral Gables has decided not to fight the FTA's findings, instead agreeing to do the equity analysis and site study. The city plans to provide any mitigation the FTA might require, Leen says. Astor Developments was not cited in the FTA ruling, but it has already paid for improvements to a local park in an effort to mollify residents.
"Our goal is not to get into a long dispute with FTA," Leen says. "We agreed to do the mitigation in advance, as long as it's reasonable and feasible. When we entered into the contract with Astor, we were not aware of any formal objection filed by the residents. Once we became aware of it, we've done everything we could to try to find a solution that's fair to everybody."
The Coral Gables city commission has also passed a resolution to extend trolley service to a historically African American community in Coral Gables, on the edge of Coconut Grove. Years ago, Cooper's mother tried to get the city to extend service to that neighborhood, without success.
But in the wake of the garage uproar, Coral Gables commissioners were more amenable. One possible route for that extension would be through Coconut Grove, meaning the residents there might also get trolley service for the first time. The city of Miami has refused to extend its free trolley into Coconut Grove (the two cities' transit services are operated by separate agencies).
The FTA told Miami-Dade County to review all of the grants it administered in the $69 million program, looking for any other possible civil rights violations. Eighteen towns and cities received money under the program funded with stimulus money. They used the money for everything from new buses to a $10,000 bus canopy and $500 benches. That review is ongoing.
Astor was set to break ground on the luxury condo development last fall, but was unable to do so because of the lawsuits. The company declined to comment for this story beyond saying it is in settlement talks with the city of Coral Gables. Astor proposed a solution: Keep the garage in Coral Gables, incorporating it into the mixed used development the developer is planning for the original garage site. Astor has offered to redesign the building so there's room for a garage on the first floor.
But that presents a complication. For the developer to move forward, the current garage would have to be knocked down and rebuilt as part of the larger building. So for two or three years, Coral Gables' trolleys will have to use another garage.
The only feasible spot for the temporary relocation seems to be the Coconut Grove facility, Leen says. In order to settle its case against the developer, Coral Gables wants the Coconut Grove residents to settle their claim, too.
Cooper is skeptical of the settlement. "I think we should just fight this to the death," she says. "We may get stuck with them being there indefinitely. I just don't trust it when they say only two or three years."
Coral Gables may ask the court to retain jurisdiction, equivalent to a consent decree, as a way to reassure Coconut Grove residents that deadlines will be enforced and the garage in their neighborhood really will be temporary. And the FTA will be watching.
If the settlement doesn't work out, "we're going to go to court and pursue our lawsuit and we'll argue that the zoning isn't correct," Leen says. "If we prevail then we won't go into Coconut Grove. If we lose, we'll be ordered to go into Coconut Grove." In other words, the garage could wind up in either place. Coral Gables also wants the developer to foot the bills for all this litigation.
"The whole idea of this agreement is the city would not have to pay for this," Leen adds. "We're fine with our current facility. If Astor just wanted to walk away, we'd be fine with that. But they've invested a lot of money."
Susannah Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.
Images: Top — Residents of Coconut Grove in Miami, Florida, oppose a controversial trolley garage in their neighborhood. The decision to move the garage from tony Coral Gables to the historically black Miami neighborhood to make way for a luxury condo development was made without residents' input. Photo by Catherine Skipp/University of Miami School of Law. Bottom — In October 2013, the Federal Transit Administration ruled that the siting process of the new trolley garage violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Lawsuits followed and settlement talks continue, but no solution has yet been found. Coconut Grove residents remain skeptical. Photo by Al Diaz, AlDiazPhoto.com.