On November 19, 2004, Sprawl-Busters began the story of a citizens group’s efforts to block the construction of a Home Depot store in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Florida. We reported at the time that residents of the Grove were organizing to stop Home Depot from taking over a mall once leased by Kmart. One of 18 under-performing store leases sold by Kmart to Home Depot in June, 2004, the Coconut Grove location is surrounded by residential homes, apartments and condominiums. An existing Home Depot is just minutes away on 8th St. Neighbors said from the outset that the project was too intense for the parcel, and would discourage shoppers from trying to get into the village mercantile area near the store. Opponents formed a group “The Grove First,” and produced a film about their battle with the world’s largest home improvement chain. Because of resident pressure, Home Depot was forced to fit its store inside the footprint of the 70,000 s.f. empty Kmart. The Home Depot finally opened in May of 2007, two and a half years after announcing their plans. According to CBS TV 4 in Miami, the discount retailer got itself into a jam from day one. A City of Miami Police officer had to be called out to US 1 and 32nd Ave. by the store two evenings ago, after a tractor-trailer truck ran aground, shutting down traffic to US 1 as it got out of the store’s parking lot. Home Depot said it was not one of their delivery trucks, but the traffic snarl was an ominous predictor of things to come. Home Depot had to issue the following statement: “About 9 p.m. Thursday, an auto-hauling tractor-trailer truck was observed leaving our parking lot after stopping long enough to unload two cars. Home Depot associates went to investigate just as the truck pulled into traffic, where it collided with a pickup. This parking lot has been used for virtually every reason for several years before Home Depot moved in. Apparently, some people still see it as a place to transact business. However, this was not a Home Depot delivery truck.” Residents say Home Depot erred — there was no collision, the truck just got stuck. Over the past two and a half years, The Grove First has maintained that this neighborhood location was not compatible with the warehouse operations of a high-volume big box store. One of the neighborhood activists, Marc Sarnoff, was elected as a Miami Commissioner. “This is not designed for an industrial warehouse,” Sarnoff told CBS. “This is not designed for this heavy use.” Sarnoff asked the city’s Zoning Administrator to rule if this site was prohibited as a nonconforming use in its zone, if the project required a special exception, and if the project was subject to the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Conservation District rules. The city’s attorney, however, intervened, and would not let the Zoning Administrator reply. “You inserted yourself into the process,” Sarnoff wrote in a letter yesterday to the city’s attorney, “and then refused to provide a zoning opinion on very broad questions of law that concern general City of Miami zoning issues.” The opening of the store in the old Kmart shell was not the end of the battle. A lawsuit was filed in 2006 against the Home Depot project by local residents, and that lawsuit was recently settled, on terms that remain confidential. According to the Miami Herald this week, the main point of the complaint — that the city made appealing zoning decisions a sham by failing to inform residents a decision had been made — is still a live issue. The lawsuit was filed by residents Sue McConnell, Leonard Scinto and Sarah Cullen. Their attorney Tucker Gibbs, who also represented The Grove First group, told the Herald the “tangible and lasting results for the community” is a store that is nearly half the size of what was originally proposed. “Once Home Depot came in we said if you’re going to build a Home Depot, this is the Home Depot we want, ” Gibbs said. The retailer was granted a permit to renovate the old Kmart space in June 2006 by the city’s Zoning Administrator — not the zoning board. As a result, residents were not even aware that such a permit had been granted. They sued the city. The issue of notifying residents of zoning decisions is still unresolved, Gibbs said. The group may try to amend the city’s zoning law to require that the zoning administrator’s decision must be circulated to abutting residents. Residents must now negotiate that solution with city officials.
When the lawsuit against the city was first filed, one of the organizers of The Grove First, Mel Meinhardt, said: “When our city’s executive branch fails to abide by the laws the Commission passes, citizens must turn to the courts, and the residents must continue their fight. We are sure all Grove residents will agree and understand our quiet determination to see this through…We look forward to a successful conclusion of the long campaign to keep big-box operations out of Coconut Grove’s residential neighborhoods — or remove them if they should open illegally… We will continue to fight to save our quality of life in Coconut Grove.” A Home Depot spokesman told the Miami Herald this week, “We’re pleased that we’ve resolved the situation with the Coconut Grove residents and the city of Miami.” The press release that was agreed to by all the parties reads as follows: “The lawsuit brought against the City of Miami by Coconut Grove neighbors of the Grove Gate Home Depot has been settled out of court. Though not named in the original suit, Home Depot was granted permission to enter the suit in support of the City of Miami. The lawsuit was filed in October 2006 to contest permits the City issued to Home Depot enabling it to open its Grove Gate store in May 2007. While the terms of the settlement are confidential, the City, the neighbors, and Home Depot are confident that the resolution best serves the interests of everyone and will bring about tangible and lasting results for the community.” Home Depot had filed a Motion to Dismiss the case, which was denied. The residents wanted the court to recognize that they had “standing” in court, and that their case had merit. The court retains jurisdiction over the case, and Home Depot has roughly one year to satisfy the terms of the settlement.