The Not Now Silly Newsroom has documented time and again how developers around Charles Avenue have done nothing but obliterate that history.
The latest outrage is the most massive attempt at gentrification in West Grove since the last outrage, which was the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums (which this reporter calls The Monstrosity). First a quick course in a century plus of West Grove history.
In the late 1800s, as cities in the north were already metropolises, Coconut Grove was still a mix of swamp and dry land, just getting started. Its settlement pre-dates the City of Miami, which grew faster and taller.
Commodore Ralph Monroe, one of the earliest residents, advertised in the north to his rich industrialist friends. He offered a totally immersive rustic experience at Camp Biscayne, where people could fish, hunt, and sail. This was before any roads could bring tourists to South Florida. Boats were the only way in. South Florida’s tourist boom — now its biggest industry — begins there and then.
The earliest gathering of what could be considered a community in Coconut Grove were the Bahamians that drifted up through Key West looking for work. Mariah Brown (known as Mary the Washerwoman at the Peacock Inn) was able to buy a small plot of land on what would become Evangelist Street and, later, Charles Avenue. [Her house on Charles Avenue is now a replica.] Eventually a gentleman by the name of Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup became the largest landholder in Coconut Grove, and one of Florida’s first Black millionaires.
E.W.F. Stirrup had a crazy idea that would have got him lynched anywhere else in the south. He thought that growing Black families needed Black home ownership. As more people moved to the area for work, Stirrup built more than 100 houses with his own hands on land he owned in Coconut Grove. These simple shotgun and Conch-style homes were sold, rented, and bartered to the hardworking men and women who really built Coconut Grove — and greater Miami — out of the swamp.
Read more about E.W.F. Stirrup here.
That simple fact made Coconut Grove a unique place in this country. Before it was swallowed by Miami (in an illegal annexation that could never happen today), it had the highest percentage of Black home ownership than anywhere else in the country.
Skip ahead a bunch of decades. The neighbourhood remained, for the most part, cohesively Black, as Black districts often do, because White folk won’t live there. And, as Black districts often are, this one was poor; the average wage was less and, therefore, the ability to get home loans was decreased, if the people weren’t redlined altogether. The neighbourhood slid into a slow, inevitable decline. However, the area that surrounded this enclave became one of the most exclusive in in this entire country. The Black pioneers, and their descendants who continued to own the houses, became land rich and cash poor. That’s why West Grove (as distinguished from White Grove, to be blunt) was ripe for gentrification.
If one drives around the neighbourhood, you’d see how, on lands that once belonged to Stirrup (and his descendants), properties have been bought, combined, developed, and walled off. These very small gated communities along Franklin — of 4-12 units — were the first beachheads into what has become over the years runaway gentrification. Grand Avenue, once the thriving Black business district, is undergoing its own challenges through gentrification, but that’s another story for another day.
I digress. Here’s some more recent history.
Approximately 15 years ago someone amassed several contiguous properties on Main Highway at the corner of Franklin Avenue. A developer bought the package and built The Monstrosity.
I entered the picture afterwards, in February of 2009. I remember returning from that first visit to Coconut Grove and telling several friends that I wasn’t sure what I had discovered, but I thought there was a story to be written. I was wrong. There have now been many stories written.
On the day this writer discovered the Charles Avenue Historic Marker — and the E.W.F. Stirrup House — it was my very first time in the neighbourhood. And, coincidentally, it was these 2 properties immediately behind the historic marker — 3227 and 3247 Charles Avenue — that provided the first mystery to be solved. That day I rushed home to look Charles Avenue up on Google Earth. Despite these lots being empty earlier in the day, Google Maps had a small house on each lot; one a shotgun, the other a Conch style, if I recall correctly.
Where did these houses go and why?
In a coconut shell, here’s a short history of these 2 properties:
They had been in the Stirrup Family for a few generations. When the rapacious developer showed up to build the Monstrosity, he entered into a complicated property swap with the Stirrup descendants. In exchange for 2 brand new condos in The Monstrosity — and $10 to make it all legal — they would give the developer these 2 properties on the north side of Charles Avenue and a 50-year lease on the historic E.W.F. Stirrup House.
Almost as an aside, this writer spent almost a decade trying to save the E.W.F. Stirrup House from Demolition by Neglect, despite it being designated historic in 2004. That fight was lost and is told elsewhere in these pages. Long story short: That house is now replica after the same developer used Demolition by Neglect (nearly a decade of open windows on a wood frame house) to argue in front of Miami’s Historic Preservation Board the house was too far gone to be saved. In other words: They used the conditions they created to successfully argue they no longer had an obligation to restore the house, instead building a recreation.
Read more about the E.W.F. Stirrup House.
Would this have been the fate of the E.W.F. Stirrup House if it had been owned by the White pioneers of Coconut Grove? One needs only look to the Barnacle State Park, where Commodore Monroe’s house was saved, for your answer. E.W.F. Stirrup was his friend and contemporary.
But, back to these 2 houses. Where did they go?
The developer knocked them down to use the lots as a marshalling yard to build The Monstrosity. That neatly solved a construction problem. Crews were able to use the Stirrup property as a pass-through, as opposed to having to use the busier Main Highway. However, the neighbourhood lost 2 affordable houses of “vernacular style”. Ironically, the city of Miami successfully passed a law to save these “vernacular” houses recently, saving these last few shotgun and Conch-style homes. Had this law been in place, I would have had a greater shot at saving the Stirrup House and the developer never would have been able to knock down the 2 houses across the street.
What happened to these 2 properties after that? Financial jigger-pokery, if you believe blogger Heinz Deiter (and I do). Deiter alleged that the developer valued the 2 condos in the not-yet built Monstrosity at $500,000 each, which was a huge stretch. Then he went to the bank and claimed he now owned $1,000,000 worth of property on the north side of Charles Avenue. Despite prevailing property values to the contrary, the bank took his word for it.
He was able to obtain a bank loan using those properties as collateral. Once these properties were no longer needed for this grand scheme of building the Monstrosity, the developers had a new scheme. They simply stopped paying off the bank loan and allowed the properties to go into foreclosure. The bank repossessed, put the properties up for auction, and they were bought by a company whose owner was a partner in other companies with the developer who had just defaulted. Then, through some more LLC jiggery-pokery, these properties were conveyed back to the same developer.
Bank distress auctions are supposed to be arm’s length. This one was not. By my estimate the bank took a $750,000 bath on these properties. When I tried to interest the bank in what I considered to be a fraud upon it, they were very incurious and didn’t seem to care at all. After all, it’s only money.
Not Now Silly has written other stories about these 2 properties, like the night valets from Commodore Plaza were illegally using them for overflow parking at $6 a car, ripping off the city of Miami and creating chaos on a residential street.
Read more about the Night of the Mad Valets.
Which gets us to the real topic of this post after all that preamble. These 2 properties, combined with several others, both on Charles and William Avenue, will be turned into what appears to be a 30 room, 2 story hotel.
Back in 2016 I worked on a secret project, which was an attempt to connect all the various rapacious developers in Coconut Grove with all the properties they owned, or controlled, along Grand Avenue. I created a map, which I colour-coded by property ownership. It was during the making of this gentrification map that I accidentally discovered that Peter Gardiner (of the Pointe Group) had not only bought into the redevelopment project at the E.W.F. Stirrup House B&B, but had purchased these 2 properties under discussion at $1,000,000 a piece.
I booked an appointment to interview Gardiner, knowing I was going to pull a massive Bait & Switch.
We started our discussion with the Stirrup House and he assured me that as a lifelong Coconut Grove resident, he wants nothing but the best for Coconut Grove. Whenever he said that, and he said it several times, I heard, “Nothing but the best for White Grove.” He talked about what a wonderful steward his companies will be in Coconut Grove.
When I thought we had exhausted that topic, I pulled out my colour-coded map of Grand Avenue. I told him that these properties along Grand — including ones he owned through Pointe Group — have now been flipped so many times that the properties can no longer pay for themselves. Property is a machine that has to pay for itself. These properties along Grand will never pay for themselves unless Miami upzones the properties allowing for heights and densities greater than the 5 storeys allowed in the Miami 21 plan.
Then I also let him know that I knew he had recently bought these 2 properties on the north side of Charles Avenue. I laid out the history of these properties, including the suspected fraud upon the bank, and his only reaction was that maybe he hadn’t done his due diligence on these properties. Ya think?
Keep in mind that these 2 properties were overvalued at $500,000 each when they were traded for condos in the Monstrosity. They sold in 2015 for $1 million each, a markup of 100% on properties that were valued by the owner himself. However, Heagrand Inc, bought them for a mere $215,000 at the bank’s distress auction just 4 years earlier.
These properties (and all of the others that will need to be combined to build this hotel) are zoned Single Family. However, based upon the price paid, they will NEVER be able to make back their money by building a single family home on any of these lots, and a few of them still have houses on them.
I made it clear to Peter Gardiner in 2016 that I would fight him tooth and nail on any upzoning effort and that was 2 years before I saw this hotel rendering.
These developers have property flipped themselves into a corner. They now have land that can never pay for itself. The only way they can make any money whatsoever is by building big and building up. By building a hotel on these properties, as a matter of fact.
Something I’ve learned: Developers have better lawyers than the city. They tend to get whatever they want. Something else I’ve discovered through this process of investigating properties is that developers plan for the long game, sometimes decades in advance. This plan has been in the works since the beginning. I heard talk of it 9 years ago, but dismissed it as a fantasy. But the fantasy now has an architect’s rendering.
CROSSING THE LINE FROM JOURNALIST TO ACTIVIST
Recently I did something I’ve never done before as an advocacy journalist. Normally I research a story, write it up, publish it, and then promote the finished article. This time, while still researching this article, I went to the neighbourhood Homeowners’ Association [HOATA] and passed around the architectural rendering you see here. I challenged them to fight this project with everything they have otherwise the gentrifiers win and the neighbourhood loses.
- The developers will use conditions it created — just like they did on the Stirrup House — as the reason to argue for redeveloping these fallow lots;
- The developers will use the height of the Monstrosity to argue this hotel is not too big for the community;
- The developers will argue they need not plan for on-site parking because the Miami Parking Authority is planning a huge, honking parking garage right next door as part of the Coconut Grove Playhouse redevelopment project;
- People [that I won’t name yet] who claim to protect the neighbourhood will come out in support of this massive development (if they haven’t already in secret talks) because they have dealings with these developers in other parts of Coconut Grove;
- Miami-Dade County, which is redeveloping the Playhouse property, will come out in favour of this massive development (if it hasn’t already in secret talks);
- Gable Stage, expected to occupy a redeveloped Playhouse, will come out in favour of this project (if it hasn’t already in secret talks);
- Community activists will fail to mount a successful fight to block this project;
- Miami’s Planning and Zoning Board will approve this upzoning because, again, developers always seems to get what they want;
- Miami Commissioners will fail to stop the project (if they haven’t already given tacit approval in secret talks);
- Miami Commissioners will attempt to squeeze community concessions out of the developers — which will be small potatoes, unenforceable, and forgotten soon after — once they realize this is a runaway train.
To sum up: This battle is already lost unless the community fights the upzoning at the Planning and Zoning Board, to put the kibosh on building a hotel for rich White Folk, so that other rich White folk make a small fortune in a historic Black neighbourhood.
Because, make no mistake, at the core of every story about Coconut Grove is a story about Racism.