By Francisco Alvarado, Floridabulldog.org
The path to Orlando Capote’s front door in Coral Gables is an impassable construction zone that no one can enter, not even his neighborhood mail carrier.
On a recent afternoon, cement trucks and excavators clogged the unpaved, rocky terrain along the small stretch of Coconut Grove Drive where Capote’s two-bedroom home is located. A padlocked chain-link gate and fence separates the construction site and the sidewalk in front of the house, forcing Capote to enter and exit his property through an alley behind his backyard.
For more than three years, by order of the City of Coral Gables, Coconut Grove Drive between Malaga and Palermo avenues has been completely closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic so that a developer backed by Mexican investors could build the largest commercial development in the City Beautiful’s history.
Agave Holdings, whose owners include members of the family behind Tequila brand Jose Cuervo, is about a year away from finishing The Plaza Coral Gables, a behemoth of a project that has literally swallowed whole Capote’s house.
His property is nearly engulfed by the high exterior walls of The Plaza’s two garages.
Lots of complaints, lots of losses
The half-a-billion-dollar, mixed-use development marched forward despite Capote’s 24 complaints to the city’s fire marshal and other officials since 2017. In 2018, he also appealed to the Miami-Dade Fire Safety Board that the closure of Coconut Grove Drive violated county and state law because fire rescue personnel do not have adequate access to his Coral Gables home in the event of an emergency. Each time, Capote lost.
The street’s closing is just one of the ways Coral Gables officials appear to have run roughshod over Capote’s property rights and landed him in the belly of the beast.
“As you can see, it’s pretty miserable here,” Capote told a Florida Bulldog reporter. “But they can’t get me out unless I stop paying property taxes.”
His fears were confirmed last Nov. 18, Capote said. His 94-year-old mother, Lucia Capote, had a bad fall and he was unable to pick her up. “I heard a huge blow and when I walked into the kitchen, there she was lying on the floor.”
Even though every fire rescue unit in the Coral Gables Fire Department has keys to the gate in front of Capote’s house, he had to tell the 911 operator that paramedics would need to come through the back alley because a backhoe was blocking the gate, Capote said.
“When they got here, they could not wheel the gurney into the house via the back door or the side door,” he said. “So they sat her on her walker and wheeled her to the door where they then placed her on a stretcher. They had to carry her more than 200 feet to where the fire rescue truck was parked.”
Capote accuses Coral Gables officials, including Fire Marshal Troy Easley and Fire Chief Marcos de la Rosa, of shutting down the only road with direct access to his front door even though it only benefitted a private development. “It used to be that fire codes to protect life, safety and property were beyond any compromise,” he said. “Of everything that has been done to us so far, the city approving the closure of the only code compliant fire rescue access road to our property is at the top of the list.”
Attempts to interview Easley, de la Rosa and Coral Gables City Manager Peter Iglesias were routed to Coral Gables spokeswoman Martha Pantin, who said city officials were “not available” for comment. In fact, they chose not to respond to Florida Bulldog.
In an April 20 response to a list of questions emailed to her on April 15, Pantin said Capote put himself in his current predicament by refusing to move out of the home he and his family have lived in for more than three decades.
“Unfortunately, by choosing to remain in the property despite the development, Mr. Capote should have understood what that would mean and the inconveniences that it could result in,” Pantin said. “If Mr. Capote has concerns, the city can review compliance with the staging plan.”
Purchased by Capote and his parents in 1989 for $130,000, the barrel-tile roof house at 2915 Coconut Grove Drive is the last remaining single-family property on the block. By 2005, when Capote’s father died, the surrounding homes across 7.2 acres were bought and razed to make way for Old Spanish Village, a 900,000-square-foot mostly residential community to be built by Ponce Circle Developers, headed by Coral Gables developer Ralph Sanchez. (He died in 2013.)
In 2007, Sanchez broke ground on Old Spanish Village, investing $128 million into the first phase, which entailed two luxury towers and three-story villas with rooftop terraces. But the 2008 global economic recession stalled the project, and it subsequently went into foreclosure.
Offers to sell Coral Gables home rejected
In 2011, Agave Holdings bought a large slice of Spanish Village for $30.6 million from FirstBank Puerto Rico, which had seized it from Ponce Circle Developers in a $60.1 million foreclosure judgment. A year later, Agave acquired a 7,205-square-foot office building at 2901 Ponce de Leon Blvd., the only building on the Old Spanish Village site completed by Ponce Circle Developers. Agave tore down the building and other semi-built portions of the former development.
In 2015, the Coral Gables City Commission approved Agave’s initial concept called Mediterranean Village, which entailed redeveloping 6.7 acres at 2801, 2901 and 3001 Ponce de Leon Blvd. into a complex of 227 condominiums and townhouses, 180 hotel rooms and nearly 600,000 square feet of retail. Two years later, city commissioners signed off on Agave’s latest iteration, The Plaza Coral Gables, which consists of two Class A office buildings, an luxury apartment tower with 135 units, a 242-room Loews Hotel, 161,000 square feet of retail commercial space and two garages. The buildings will be nearly 200 feet tall.
Between Ponce Circle Developers and Agave Holdings, Capote said he’s received more than 40 offers to sell his Coral Gables home since the early 2000s and he’s turned them all down. “I had a woman come by who told me her grandmother built our house,” Capote recalled. “She knew a lot of things about the house, pointing them out to me. Afterwards, I got an email from her about setting up a meeting to do a settlement with the city. That was just one of many instances of people coming by and throwing offers and alternatives. Some suggested setting up a meeting and the developer and the city to sign an agreement.”
In 2017, Agave Holdings built a three-bedroom house at 3002 Coconut Grove Drive on a parcel that was part of its 2011 acquisition of the Old Spanish Village site. The company offered to give him and his mother the new house in exchange for the title to their Coral Gables home, but they declined the offer, Capote said.
Agave Holdings’ managing directors Jose Antonio Perez Helguera and Carlos Beckmann did not respond to multiple Florida Bulldog phone messages requesting comment. But city spokeswoman Pantin acknowledged the developer attempted to negotiate with Capote.
“Mr. Capote was offered alternatives including the purchase of his property,” Pantin said. “When he decided not to sell, he was also offered the opportunity to relocate during the construction which he also declined.”
‘House of Lies’
The reason, he said, was not due to the fact that Agave shaved off roughly 2,900 square feet from the entire lot at 3002 Coconut Grove Drive. The company is reserving that patch as an “open space.’’ It has no setbacks from the new house so he would be right up against a small public park, Capote said.
“My mother called it the House of Lies because the offer was too good to be true,” Capote said. “That was the last time I received a letter from the developer. I stopped counting the number of people who have tried to broker a deal with us. They all see an opportunity to make money.”
For the past six years, Capote waged an unsuccessful campaign to stop Coral Gables officials from sidestepping city, county and state laws governing property rights for the benefit of Agave Holdings. In 2015, he filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade inspector general about the city considering an application to vacate an alley from Capote’s garage to Galiano Street that Agave Holdings said was necessary to build its mixed-use project.
Capote alleged the city would be violating county and state law that mandates the closing of an alley must serve a public purpose. On March 23, 2015, then-Miami-Dade Inspector General Mary Cagle wrote to then-Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason that her office was referring Capote’s complaint to the city and that she would not be taking any further action.
“We do wish to remind you, however, that the Miami-Dade Traffic and Engineering Division has exclusive jurisdiction in respect to all matters of traffic engineering within the territorial areas of [the county],” Cagle wrote. “Accordingly, this matter should be approved by the county prior to moving forward.”
City blows off county
On May 22, 2015, Miami-Dade Public Works Deputy Director Antonio Cotarelo also put Coral Gables officials on notice by objecting to the vacating of the alley. “The county code clearly grants the county exclusive jurisdiction to determine the impact of a road closure or vacation,” Cotarelo wrote to his Coral Gables counterpart, Glenn Kephart. “The city therefore must seek and obtain the county’s approval prior to vacating any such city road, alleyway or right-of-way.”
The next day, then-Coral Gables City Attorney Craig Leen emailed two assistant county attorneys to notify them that the city did not need Miami-Dade’s blessing to close the alley: “The city does not recognize the right of the county to veto such a determination.” The alley was ordered closed in June 2015 when the Coral Gables city commission approved Agave’s mixed-use project.
Two years later, Capote again found himself fighting with the city. This time, he objected to the Coral Gables Fire Department signing off on closing the portion of Coconut Grove Drive where his house is located. On Dec. 1, 2017, Agave Holdings put up the fencing and the gates to prevent vehicular traffic from going on the road. Twenty-six days later, Capote sent an email to Fire Chief de la Rosa claiming that closing off Coconut Grove Drive to his Coral Gables home violated the county’s fire code because there was inadequate access to his house in the event of an emergency.
In a Jan. 10, 2018 response, de la Rosa informed Capote that the department’s fire prevention division chief and his staff had conducted a field visit to his house and determined that the accessibility and travel distance to his property are “within acceptable ranges.” Furthermore, fire engines could access Capote’s home via the alley behind the backyard from either direction, de la Rosa explained.
The fire chief also said the fire department consulted with Agave Holdings’ general contractor to improve access to the front of Capote’s Coral Gables home by installing lock boxes that contain keys to the gates and that all fire and police personnel would be able to open the lock boxes. “In summary, we have devised a clear path to your property from both ends of the house,” de la Rosa wrote.
Five months later, Capote appealed to the Miami-Dade Fire Prevention and Safety Appeals Board by arguing the alley was not a proper fire rescue road because it was partially unpaved and was not wide enough in certain segments to accommodate fire trucks.
During a May 31, 2018 hearing, Coral Gables Fire Marshal Easley testified that the alley was an acceptable access point even though he admitted he had not measured its width. He also said the gates blocking Coconut Grove Drive were not an obstruction other than a minor inconvenience. “An obstruction is something that we can’t navigate through without extreme effort,” Easley said at the time. “A gate would be very minor to us.”
The board denied Capote’s appeal but mandated that all Coral Gables fire rescue vehicles had a master key for the lock boxes at each gate on Coconut Grove Drive and that gates not be obstructed.
“Fire rescue personnel still must open a minimum of two locked gates to reach the front of our home,” Capote told Florida Bulldog. “In the event that a person in critical condition needs to be taken to a hospital, then the fire rescue personnel would have to spend additional precious time opening locked gates at the either end of the closed road.”
Pantin said Agave Holdings will reopen Coconut Grove Drive once the company has completed construction, which is currently slated for late 2022. “Coconut Grove Drive is a city street and will remain open to public use,” she said. “Mr. Capote has access to [his] garage as an alternative access was included in the Plaza design. I went by the property and confirmed.”
Vow to remain in Coral Gables home
Capote’s mother, Lucia, never came home after paramedics took her away in November. “They initially took her to Coral Gables Hospital, but was then transferred to another hospital around Nov. 20 where she had surgery,” Capote said. “She was then transferred to a rehabilitation facility where she got an infection and had to go back to the hospital.”
She recovered and Capote placed her in the West Gables Rehabilitation Hospital. “She was doing better,” Capote said. “She was no longer on oxygen and was eating her food.” But the optimistic diagnosis was short-lived. On Feb. 26, Lucia died, Capote said.
Over the next three months, Coconut Grove Drive remained an active construction zone until April 19. “When I got home, I noticed that all the fences, barriers etc. that were blocking the road were gone,” Capote said. “It appears the work to reopen the road has started.”
Capote said he found the timing odd given Florida Bulldog had reached out to city officials about his claims. “The fire codes were violated for over three years, yet little if anything happened,” he said. “You contact the city and suddenly something is happening.”
The clearing of the road was short-lived. On May 10, Capote emailed Easley his most recent complaint about a cherry picker blocking the gate to his front yard. Easley responded by assuring Capote that fire trucks could get to the house and that “There are always individuals around to assist in moving the vehicles, if necessary.”
Nevertheless, Capote insists he is not giving up his house. “Not selling and not moving does not give the city the right to approve a development that violates numerous city and county codes, as well as state law, that exist to protect the safety and legal rights of a property owner,” Capote said. “Maybe they thought, ‘when this guy sees what we are going to do to him, he will go away.’ Well, I haven’t left and I don’t intend to leave.”