Feds: Trolley garage violates Civil Rights Act

Coral Gables' new trolley garage under construction in Coconut Grove

MIAMI – It's not everyday when the federal government sounds off on a development project in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood.

The U.S. Department of Transportation claim the cities of Miami, Coral Gables and Miami-Dade County violated the Civil Rights Act when they approved the construction of a bus maintenance facility for the City Beautiful's famed trolleys in Miami's West Grove neighborhood without conducting an equity analysis and adequate public outreach during the planning stages of the project. 

The West Grove is a historic black neighborhood founded by Bahamian immigrants.

"I am a descendent of Bahamian settlers from the beginning of the last century and quite a few of us still here," said Clarice Cooper, the woman whose administrative complaint filed last April to the Department of Transportation triggered the investigation.

Her home is three doors down from the project

"It seems as though we are always faced with the situation where anything and anybody can come into our neighborhood and do whatever without any input from us and that is one of the main things that we opposed as far as this project coming here," she said.

The county will now coordinate with the cities of Miami and Coral Gables to conduct the necessary equity analysis.

The Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) findings explain that the Title VI "analysis must determine whether the facility will cause adverse impacts borne disproportionately on the basis of race, color or national origin." The report says that the local governments "must also determine that there are no alternative locations that would have a less disparate impact on the basis of race, color, or national origin."

Read: Federal Transit Administration report

"That's fairly good news for us," said Cooper. "The only thing is I wish it would have come a lot sooner before the first brick was laid for this project."

At the time Cooper filed her complaint, construction had already started and residents had missed a critical step in the process by failing to appeal.

"There were distractors, the people who said, 'well, it's already up now. What are you going to do?' We kept fighting because we figured it was worth it you know, we've been around here too long to just give up like that," said Cooper.

When Astor Development wanted to buy the city's current depot site near Coral Gables High School to build luxury condominiums, city officials said yes but only if the developer built a new trolley depot first. The developer decided on the West Grove location.

"My client searched high and low to find a suitable site that was properly zoned and in close proximity to the trolley route, and we couldn't find one within the city of Coral Gables," Mario Garcia-Serra, an attorney for Astor, told Local 10's Christina Vazquez in January.

The city of Miami approved construction even though internal e-mails from zoning officials obtained by Local 10 show they suspected the project was defined by code as an "industrial use," which is a prohibited use for that commercial site. Coral Gables has asked a judge to look into the zoning issue. Meantime, a spokesperson for the developer said up to $2 million has already been spent building the facility that Miami city officials approved and the city of Coral Gables entered a contract to accept.

Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen said the city will conduct the analysis even if they don't agree with the federal government's conclusions.

"We greatly respect the civil rights laws," said Leen, "The city of Coral Gables takes this very seriously. From the beginning, we have said that the developer had the responsibility to provide us a building that complies with all laws, federal and local and if they haven't done that, we are not going to occupy the building."

The FTA granted an extension until early December to have a specific action plan for conducting a Title VI equity analysis and public outreach," said Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Karla Damian.

"The action plan will be finalized pursuant to the new deadline," she said, adding that the county was working with the city of Miami.

The city of Miami didn't immediately have a comment on the Federal Transit Administration's findings.

The federal government weighed-in because one of the Coral Gables' trolleys was purchased with federal funds distributed by the county.

"We think that the federal government is greatly expanding their jurisdiction, beyond where it is allowed, by saying that a trolley building that doesn't use federal funds at all and that we don't presently own or occupy causes us to violate federal law," said Leen. "I do want to be clear we have filed a lawsuit related to that very trolley building and we will not occupy that building until it is demonstrated that it complies with all laws."

"I think that once the analysis has gone through that the city of Coral Gables will do what they think is best, which is to try and reach out to the residents in this neighborhood," said Lowell Kuvin, one of several attorneys working pro bono on behalf of some West Grove residents who oppose the project. "The next step may be a lawsuit filed in federal court, the next step may be the Department of Justice getting involved in this, it is going to be very interesting to see what the next step is in the way this whole thing has transpired."

Cooper expressed quality of life concerns with the project that included worries about noise and traffic.

"I was against this because I thought it wasn't legal for them to put this here in a residential area because of all the ill effects it would have on this entire community," she said.

She also doesn't care much for the look of the building, which now stands nearly completed and vacant as its future remains uncertain. Some have suggested it be converted into a farmer's market.

"When you look at this building it is very imposing, it doesn't lend itself to the character of what's around here, it does not fit into our lifestyles here."