Zoning plan for Bahamian-style Coconut Grove inn approved

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A conceptual rendering depicts a proposed Bahamian-style inn on Charles Avenue in the historically Black and Bahamian west Coconut Grove.

Borges Architects

Descendants of one of Miami’s Black pioneers and their partners can develop a half-dozen lots across from the home that Ebenezar Stirrup built in 1897 after Miami commissioners approved a zoning plan on Thursday that will allow a Bahamian-style inn on Coconut Grove’s historic Charles Avenue.

One of Miami’s oldest standing homes, the E.W.F. Stirrup House was carefully restored and opened as a bed and breakfast last year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Following Thursday’s vote, members of the Stirrup-Simpson family and Grove builders Peter Gardner and Gino Falsetto can now build a complex of three-story buildings with up to 66 rooms rooms on an acre behind the Coconut Grove Playhouse, with underground parking.

The project — which some neighbors worry will bring traffic and spur gentrification — is tentatively called Grove Inn. Before the vote, developers agreed to address some of the neighbors’ issues through a restrictive covenant. More specific design plans will require approval from the city’s historic preservation board.

The development team courted support from local community groups such as the Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association, along with the Grove Rights and Community Equity group (GRACE), who negotiated a community benefits package that included $150,000 for a nonprofit group called Rebuilding Together Miami-Dade that helps low-income families rehabilitate their homes. Former city commissioner and Grove elder Thelma Gibson supports the plan.

“Our support of the project is the result of extensive and tedious negotiations with the developer over the past two years,” said Carolyn Donaldson, vice chair of GRACE. “We gave consideration to the fact that the Stirrup family is one of the developers in the project and acknowledge their history of providing affordable housing contributions to the West Grove community over the past century.”

Commissioners gave unanimous initial approval to the upzoning in March, setting the stage for Thursday’s final vote on the developer’s zoning application.

At City Hall, a stream of Grove residents spoke in favor or against the rezoning during public comment.

“This project represents future growth,” said Linda Williams, a West Grove native who lives on Charles Avenue. “I’m in favor of it. The West Grove community is largely in favor of it.”

In recent weeks, a few dozen neighbors on Charles Avenue and other adjacent streets organized meetings to raise concerns about traffic, noise and what they considered weak promises of jobs for West Grove residents.

The disagreement drew awkward dividing lines through a community with common goals but different ideas about how to achieve them. The project will allow a family with roots in the community to profit off land passed down to descendants — generational wealth being built in a historically Black Miami neighborhood.

“We have labored long,” said Dr. George Simpson, 96, whose grandfather built the Stirrup house. “He always wanted it to be left in a condition that would take care of his family if they needed help.”

Others worry that the Grove Inn would disturb the character of a slice of the West Grove that they say should be strictly residential. They outlined practical concerns over the construction and operation of the business, and the traffic that would come with it. Most agree that the West Grove needs investment and economic revitalization, but the Grove Inn proposal rankled property owners and neighbors in the immediate vicinity who were either not aware of the plan or didn’t realize the rezoning vote was impending.

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George Simpson, right, and his father, Dr. George Simpson, whose family owns the long-vacant 1897 E.W.F. Stirrup House in historically Black West Coconut Grove, have restored the home with the help of development partners. The historic home is now open as a bed-and- breakfast lodging while the partners seek a rezoning for lots they own across the street to build a companion Bahamian-style inn. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

“The people that say that we want this are the people who will not be impacted directly by this commercial development in a residential community,” said lifelong West Grove resident William Armbrister, adding that commercial investment belongs closer to existing businesses at Grand Avenue and Douglas Road. He was upset with the thought of delivery trucks and other traffic in front of his home on Thomas Avenue.

Much of the hearing focused on procedural disputes over whether activist and attorney David Winker, a frequent City Hall critic who has represented multiple people suing the city and commissioners, had properly registered to represent about a dozen residents who wanted greater rights to speak on the project. Eventually, commissioners recognized several of them as formal intervenors during the zoning debate.

That included Anthony Vinciguerra, a 15-year resident on Charles Avenue, who pushed for better terms in a covenant that would accompany the upzoning. He hoped the restrictions would minimize impact on residents and discourage others from seeking commercial rezonings in the area.

“Our concern is this will set a precedent for others in the area to say, ‘The Stirrups got commercial zoning. Why can’t we?’” he said.

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An aerial view of historic Charles Avenue in west Coconut Grove shows the E.W.F. Stirrup House (bottom right) across from the lots across the street where the Simpson-Stirrup family and development partners want to build a Bahamian-style inn. The large tree on the property would be preserved. In the background is the rear of the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

All along, the votes appeared to be firmly in place for the rezoning to pass, with multiple commissioners signaling the residents’ objections were not shifting their votes. At the behest of Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Coconut Grove, the developer agreed to design a driveway that pushed traffic to and from Main Highway, pay for multiple $30,000 speed tables on Charles Avenue, pay inn workers a $15 minimum wage and actively recruit Grove residents for construction and permanent jobs.

“I’ve done buildings that are 60, 70, 80 stories, and I’ve never seen a project that’s proffered more,” said Carlos Lago, the Greenberg Traurig lawyer for the developer.

The commitments, made verbally during the zoning hearing, are expected to be written into a covenant with the city.

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Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.