The struggle for “Old Florida” in Coconut Grove

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Shaded with palms and nestled among ferns, alocasia and croton, the two-story house at the end of Park Avenue is barely visible from the cars whizzing past on Douglas Road.

It’s not particularly glamorous. Its white paint is dingy and peeling in spots and vines climb the walls to the second floor, but a careful observer can see flashes of “Old Florida” in it — a coral rock chimney, a second-floor wooden balcony, ornate Corinthian columns flanking a large screened-in porch.

Built in 1916, 3701 Park Ave. has become emblematic of what Coconut Grove residents say is a growing problem. Developers are tearing down old homes and old-growth trees on large lots to split up the land and put up stark, modern that can accommodate more people in a sought-after part of Miami.

According to records from the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, a company called 3701 Park Avenue Investment, LLC bought the house in August 2015. And in March, the city issued a demolition permit.

Now neighbors have started a petition and met with the City of Miami’s preservation board, as well as Commissioner Ken Russell, to try to prevent demolition.

“We just don’t have many 100-year old homes in Miami-Dade County,” says John Nordt III, a lifelong Grove resident who recalls childhood days playing at the house with a friend who lived there. “Just because it’s on an acre of land and that’s valuable doesn’t mean it should be able to be split and torn down.”

In an interview with the Coconut Grove Grapevine, Ray Castellanos, a home builder who claims to own 3701 Park Avenue, said that he plans to split the lot, stay in the existing home, and build a house on the second lot. Neither Castellanos nor Jonathan Leyva, listed as the manager of the company, responded to multiple requests for interviews.

The way the laws stand, there’s not much the the historic board can do, said Christine Rupp, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust, which is working with the petitioners.

The City of Miami — which includes Coconut Grove — has certain zones that require permits to be reviewed for historic preservation, such as Morningside Historic District or the MiMo Historic District. Despite being one of the oldest parts of the city, Coconut Grove isn’t one of them. To guarantee protection for historic architecture outside these districts, a homeowner has to seek out a historic designation themselves, Rupp said.

Rupp and many other preservationists want more checks and balances. They suggest that the historic board be required to review demolition permits that affect older buildings. They also want provisions that protect specific types of unique historic architecture, which might save the Grove’s wooden bungalows or shotgun homes, along with homes like 3701 Park Ave., she said.

But stricter historic preservation rules can also tie the hands of property owners whose wealth may be invested in their homes.

Demolition waivers in Coconut Grove

Since 2015, 100 waivers for demolitions have been sought in Coconut Grove. Of those, 47 were sought for properties that contain structures built before 1950, according to the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser.

Rebekah Monson/The New Tropic

‘The character of the Grove’

Bryn Ingram, another lifelong resident, thinks Coconut Grove should have an historic preservation zoning designation. She worries about more cars clogging the neighborhood’s narrow roads, more homes straining septic fields, but she worries most about losing the unique look and feel of her neighborhood — the “Old Florida” homes, the leafy streets, and its quirky characters.

“Basically they’re destroying what makes the Grove special to put up big white boxes and cram people in,” she said. “They’re splitting single-home properties into multi-home properties, and ripping out the tree canopy.”

Under the city’s master plan, Coconut Grove is included in special Neighborhood Conservation Districts, which aim to preserve the character of unique Miami neighborhoods (PDF). But preservation advocates say the rules don’t go far enough.

When an owner wants a demolition permit in the Grove, the master plan requires the city to step in to examine and preserve trees, but there is no similar protection for the houses they shade, Rupp said.

The Neighborhood Conservation District rules also require that neighbors be notified of demolition permits, so that they can comment on them before they are approved. But at least one of the homeowners adjacent to 3701 Park Ave. claims he never received the notice that the city mailed. He has lodged complaints with the city to oppose the permit, according to the petition.

At tomorrow’s city commission meeting, Russell will propose that the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board evaluate whether the house at 3701 Park Ave. is of historic significance to the neighborhood. If the commission votes to support that item, a review would delay any demolition work.

“If there are loopholes, we need to fix them,” he said. “If a developer is following the right process, they have rights as well.” Russell said he wants to empower the board to proactively review the significance of older homes that may be demolished and to leverage technology to improve how the city notifies residents about development.

“We’re trying to maintain the character of the Grove and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Russell said. “We don’t have much time to get it right.”

‘Money trumps everything’

But that desire for preservation is up against the bottom line. Denser development brings in a lot more tax revenue for the city. When large lots are split and more dense properties like townhomes are added, property tax values increase — and so does the value of the land for homeowners, said Peter Ehrlich, a neighborhood preservation advocate who works on real estate projects including rehabilitating older properties.

It’s a classic battle of preservation versus property rights — one Miami Beach has been fighting for years now and one that will probably reach Shorecrest, Belle Meade, and unprotected areas near Morningside and nearby Bayside as property values rise, Ehrlich said.

“I’ve received several phone calls in last few weeks about people getting upset about losing these historic homes throughout the county, not just in the Grove,” Rupp said.

It’s not just the developers who pose a challenge — many property owners have made financial plans based on the assumption they’ll sell their property for a nice sum.

“This is a financial issue. One of the reasons the City of Miami Beach is hit with so many teardowns is because the value of the land is astronomical,” Ehrlich said. “For a lot of people, their property is their retirement, their nest egg.”

Many property owners think that seeking an historic designation will be expensive, raise their insurance rates, or make the house harder to sell. That can be true, but Rupp said the process may be less burdensome than they think.

Plus, she said, historic homes can also add value to neighborhoods — Coral Gables has some of the most stringent historic preservation rules and some of the highest property values in Miami-Dade County.

Nordt said he plans to have his own home declared historic, and he hopes other Grove residents will consider it too.

“Money trumps everything, and if we keep doing this, we’ll bulldoze Coconut Grove and it will become what we don’t want to be — a neighborhood with big box houses and no trees,” he said.