Wednesday, April 1, 2009
7 News Investigations: Community Clash
One South Florida college is making major changes in one neighborhood. Officials are tearing down houses and building parking lots without permits, and that has residents in the area fuming. The Nightteam's Patrick Fraser investigates this "Community Clash."
WSVN -- This Miami neighborhood sits off 27th Avenue in Little Havana. Once known for its beautiful picturesque homes and now known as the shrinking neighborhood.
Silfredo Trujillo: "It's all just mind boggling."
The most recent Google web page still shows eight houses on Fifth Street, but when Silfredo walks out his front door he sees this.
Patrick Fraser: "Until this happened these were homes?"
Silfredo Trujillo: "They were all homes."
Patrick Fraser: "Were they occupied?"
Silfredo Trujillo: "Oh, yes, every single one of them."
This year, the last of the houses were bought and leveled without a demolition permit. Most of the one-block area was filled with rocks and turned into a parking lot without a permit, a fence put up without a permit.
Silfredo Trujillo: "I said, wait a minute, you mean to tell me they can tear homes out, not pull permits, and that's allowed in the City of Miami? I can't do that."
The agency that spent $4.6 million to buy part of this residential Miami neighborhood? Miami-Dade College.
Patrick Fraser: "Were they open and honest with you the whole way through?"
Silfredo Trujillo: "Open and honest in what way? They never contacted us to tell us what was happening."
But the neighbors see this happening everyday. Students backing up on Southwest Fifth Street, waiting to turn into a crowded 25th Avenue to get to the parking lot next to the Interamerican campus.
Andy Vazquez: "We come home to a parking mess everyday, and the problem just continues to get worse and worse and worse."
We checked city records. The college never applied for a permit to build the parking lot or fence, and did not get permits before demolishing the homes either, and there is nothing the City of Miami can do about it.
Patrick Fraser: "So they can demolish those homes in the City of Miami without your permission?"
Kelly Penton: "That's correct."
Patrick Fraser: "Why?"
Kelly Penton: "Because they do not have to abide by city ordinance requirements."
That stuns the neighbors like Sil and Andy, and the next potential step by the college frightens them.
Kelly Penton: "From single family residential to major institutional."
The college is now asking the city to change the zoning from residential to major institutional, giving them the power to build virtually anything they need.
A few days before the meeting, two neighbors finally got to meet with school officials and complained about the ugly parking lot in their neighborhood. The college's solution, move the entrance to the other side of the lot, and "The college has already implemented a planting and landscaping program all along Fifth, all along 25th."
Patrick Fraser: "So that's the hedge that's blocking you from seeing all the cars."
Silfredo Trujillo: "That's the hedge that's supposed to do that."
The neighbors were not impressed with the plants, and the city planning staff was not impressed with the colleges plans "The planning department at that time recommended denial of the application."
But the planning advisory board went against their own staff, ignored the pleas from the neighbors and gave the college the go-ahead to rezone their part of the neighborhood.
Patrick Fraser: "What does that tell you?"
Andy Vazquez: "It tells me a lot. It tells me a lot about what actually goes on behind closed doors."
Patrick Fraser: "The college says they don't know what they are going to build on this lot, but they do have the right to eminent domain, leading neighbors to fear they may force homeowners on this block to sell their homes to expand the Interamerican Campus another block or two.
Andy Vazquez: "Yes, it is my opinion that they intend to grow this college as far north as possible."
The school is trying to get a half-cent sales tax approved by county voters to raise millions for the college. A school spokesman said that money would go for student services and not acquiring property. When we asked them to talk with us on camera they said no. Instead issuing a statement saying that, even though there are no definite plans to build on this property, the college is committed to engage its neighbors in the planning process.
Andy Vazquez: "What we would like to see happen, first of all, is that the college be a truthful entity."
The college does have to get city commissioners to approve the zoning change. The neighbors have no hope of winning there. They have learned their lesson in battling Miami-Dade College.
Silfredo Trujillo: "They can pretty much do whatever they want."
It was once a community college, in this neighborhood it's now known for its Community Clash.