Following a defeat in court, the city of Coral Gables has decided to reconsider controversial plans for a Wawa gas station across the street from an elementary school.
Commissioners want to examine all options for the property at the northeast corner of Grand Avenue and U.S. 1, including a revision of the Wawa design, revisiting the previous plan for a restaurant or even reverting to the original goal of affordable housing or a combination of housing and local businesses.
“The City wishes to seek a stay of the litigation in order to allow for time to explore a resolution to this matter,” City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos said following a meeting closed to the public at City Hall.
The grass-roots organization suing the city to stop construction of the Wawa convenience store and six-pump gas station is adamantly opposed to the gas station. The Gables Accountability Project (GAP), made up of residents from the surrounding Gables and West Coconut Grove neighborhood and parents of students at G.W. Carver Elementary School, argues that the last thing the area needs is another gas station, a magnet for pollution and dangerous traffic.
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman called the gas station “blatantly illegal” in his ruling last week upbraiding the city attorney and city manager for usurping their authority as they rushed through approval of the Wawa project with no public input or the usual city oversight. He also chastised the city for its “disingenuous” portrayal of the change in the site plan from restaurant to gas station as a “minor modification.”
Hanzman upheld GAP’s lawsuit and rejected the city’s attempt to dismiss it, so the city asked Thursday for 60 days to discuss how to move forward outside of court. GAP had been requesting discussions for more than a year, but the city would not engage, calling the suit frivolous. Former Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli called GAP’s concerns “laughable” and some commissioners said the Carver parents were racist.
“Let’s slow things down, bring all parties to the table and find an amicable solution,” Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago said in an interview with the Herald. “We want to balance the interests of the residents and those of the Carver parents.”
The parties include Wawa, a 750-store chain based in Philadelphia, and Bahamian Village, the joint venture formed by real estate developer Redevco and the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Association, which is based in the historically Black section of Coral Gables. Miami-Dade County’s public housing department gave the 1.7-acre parcel of land to the homeowners association in 2003 for a $10 fee with the intent to build a project that would “benefit the community,” revitalize Grand Avenue and provide affordable housing. All proposals for development failed until the Wawa was approved in 2020. The land is now worth about $8 million.
“The city wouldn’t talk to us before but we hope this is a new chapter where everyone has a voice,” said GAP’s attorney, David Winker. “We’re the only party that is not making any money off this deal and strictly wants what’s best for the community.”
Lago said he mediated a solution on a similar stalemate when the city of Miami allowed Coral Gables to build a trolley maintenance station in West Coconut Grove. Residents objected, and the station was moved to Coral Gables.
“As a young commissioner, I led efforts to solve the trolley dilemma,” Lago said. “We were able to resolve the developer’s concerns about a station already built, make all parties whole and help our city understand its error. It was painful but we corrected it. The station never should have been located there.
“Now we’ve got a situation where we can go back to the drawing board and deliver something that benefits the community. Affordable housing, a restaurant — whatever it is, all discussions are open.”
Lago said one of his main priorities is to expand activities at a community center that was built as part of the deal with Wawa. The community center is actually a conference room at the back of Redevco’s office building on the east side of what would be a large Wawa parking lot.
“We want to see that center open and active with kids in the neighborhood, expanding their horizons with tutoring, mentorship and college prep programs so that we can fulfill the promise of a true community center,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson has scouted the neighborhood for possible locations of a proposed Bahamian Museum of Arts and Culture for which she’s requested $2.2 million in funding from the Congressional Community Project Funding program.
Construction has halted since the lawsuit was filed a year ago. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Carver parents observed earth movers plowing dirt on the site. GAP has asked for a cease of any construction before discussions can begin.