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Lucia Capote’s hands, agile for a 90-year-old, fly across the piano keys as she plays the classic Mexican love song “Bésame Mucho.”
But the soulful notes are quickly drowned out by the infernal beep-beep-beeping of a backhoe rumbling in reverse past Capote’s sun room.
She walks outside to feed the cat, but has to shout to be heard above the din of a cement truck churning 10 yards from her front porch.
Capote and her son Orlando used to enjoy sitting in the shade of their majestic mango tree. But the dust, clanging noises and risk of a crane dropping its payload on their heads have turned the yard into a torture chamber.
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The Capotes live in the middle of a construction zone. Their garden patio abuts a row of six porta-potties. Lucia’s crystal keepsakes tremble in the china cabinet when a roller machine passes by the kitchen.
“It uses vibration to compact the fill so it feels like an earthquake in here,” Orlando Capote said, pointing to 20-foot hillocks of rock framed by their windows. “I call those the mountains of Coral Gables.”
Their cozy house, distinguishable by its barrel-tile roof, sits on a tiny island of green surrounded by dirt, concrete, a labyrinth of chain-link fencing, piles of steel rebar, stacks of pallets and heavy equipment.
It is the last house standing in what was once a pleasant residential neighborhood. All other homes were bulldozed to make way for the largest commercial development in Coral Gables’ history, The Plaza Coral Gables, a $600 million mini city within a city along Ponce de Leon Boulevard four blocks south of Miracle Mile that will encompass 1.1 million square feet of condos, offices, shops, restaurants, parking garages and a 242-room hotel.
Lucia and Orlando refused to sell to developers, real estate agents or flippers who made offers up to $900,000 for the two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,300-square-foot house they purchased in 1989 for $135,000.
“This house was our American dream,” Orlando said. His parents lost their home in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution and immigrated to Miami where they started from scratch. “You grow roots. You acquire memories. You can’t be greedy or you lose your soul.”
The Capotes have said no 35 times since Orlando Sr. got sick and died at age 80 in 2005. They are staying put.
“This is home. What price can you put on home?” Capote said when asked what sum he would accept. “People tell me I’m crazy, I’m stubborn. But we like it here. My father loved this house. I can still see him working in the yard.”
Other homeowners on the blocks that were demolished were bought out for amounts ranging from $500,000 to $1.2 million, Capote said. All their neighbors moved away.
“A Realtor showed up one night when my father was in the hospital and offered my mother $650,000,” Capote said. “She’s received anonymous phone calls, including one when they said, ‘They’re going to suffocate you in concrete, you’ll die and rot in that house, and nobody will know.’ The pressure and threats put you in a state of fear.”
Lucia, a retired Catholic school teacher, and Orlando Sr., an electrical inspector, and Orlando, an electrical engineer who works for Miami-Dade County, scrimped and saved to buy the house at 2915 Coconut Grove Drive 30 years ago.
“We worked hard to get the money to buy this house,” said Lucia, as tears welled in her and her son’s eyes. “I don’t want to lose it, just like I lost my husband. You can imagine what I’m going through, how I’m suffering.”
When The Plaza is finished, the Capote house will be hemmed in by a seven-story parking garage on the west side and a 10-foot parking garage on the east side, and dwarfed by a hotel across the street and townhouses in the back.
Their little house is symbolic as a holdout against the proliferation of projects engulfing South Florida neighborhoods in the race to build, build, build — more condos, more apartments, more offices, more cafes, more stores. Seas may be rising but luxury towers are rising much faster. Cranes — giant rotating dollar signs — have become a fixture on the Miami skyline. Mega-development has become part of the local vocabulary.
“Government keeps approving increases in zoning in places not designed to handle such high levels of density,” Orlando Capote said. “Something is generating the intolerable congestion and traffic that is ruining Miami-Dade County and that is overdevelopment.”
The Capotes blame the city of Coral Gables for allowing expansion of the complex to four times its original size, granting variances and exceptions that ballooned retail space to nearly the same square footage of all Miracle Mile’s businesses combined. Booming, unrestrained growth has burdened streets and stressed out residents from Sunny Isles to South Miami-Dade — and architectural renderings on steroids illustrate plans for the Miami River district, Little Haiti and Wynwood.
Goliath’s footprint has supplanted the Capote’s neighborhood.
“When powerful people throw money around, the rules go out the door,” Orlando said. “The city has given the developer everything he wants at the expense of our rights. Someone has to say enough is enough. We have won some partial victories. But we’re just two little people. We don’t matter.”
An election campaign flier sits on their dining room table. It’s from mayoral candidate and former commissioner Jeannett Slesnick, who vows to “FIGHT against mega developments. Oversized, high-rise buildings aren’t Coral Gables. They never have been. But over the past few years, the mayor and city commission have allowed developer after developer to go higher and higher, changing the aesthetic character of our city and threatening our quality of life. We must stop them now — before it’s too late.”
Orlando Capote despairs that it’s too late for him and his mother. He’s spent hours researching city codes, county regulations and state law. He’s attended meetings, pulled documents and sent emails to zoning, building and traffic engineering officials. He can quote the rules and statute numbers on easements, setbacks, height restrictions, platting, SAPs (Special Area Plans). Yet his street has been closed, gated and locked. The masonry walls that are supposed to separate residential and commercial properties were torn down Feb. 11. The alley behind his house was converted into a dead end, further limiting access, and he is worried that fire-rescue trucks would have trouble getting to his mother in case of an emergency. His list of objections is long.
The city insists that the project by the Mexican developer Agave Ponce — an affiliate of the Cuervo tequila company — has been closely scrutinized since its original incarnation as the Old Spanish Village by the late developer Ralph Sanchez, which was never completed.
“The Plaza Coral Gables project has gone through an exhaustive approval process which has been publicly vetted in multiple public hearings conducted over a decade at numerous City Commission meetings, planning and zoning board meetings, Board of Architects reviews, among others,” the city said in a statement. “Mr. Capote’s concerns have been addressed since the project’s inception by city staff as well as the previous and current developer. The walls were not on Mr. Capote’s property and their removal was required to allow for necessary foundation work.”
The current developer, while sympathetic to the Capotes’ situation, said “it has been clear the neighbor is not interested in selling the property and therefore the project has been designed accordingly,” Agave Ponce stated, pledging to continue working with neighbors throughout the “intense construction process.”
The Capote residence brings to mind Virginia Lee Burton’s classic and prescient children’s book, “The Little House,” about a small, simple country house that gets swallowed up by urbanization. And their predicament harkens back to that of Adelaide Allocca, a 68-year-old widow who refused to sell her downtown Miami house to the Omni Mall developer, who offered her $385,000 in 1970.
“I want to live out my days here,” she said, and the Omni was built on three sides of her Spanish-style house. Before she died in 1992, she offered to sell for $1 million, but the mall owner declined, the house passed to her sons, got leased to a solar power company, outlived the mall (which closed in 1999), was sold to a New York developer for $5.3 million in 2005 and reduced to rubble in the span of three hours.
Orlando says principle, not defiance and certainly not logic, is driving the decision to stay in their house.
“What do I do and what did my father do every day in our jobs? We uphold the rules, no favoritism,” he said. “We have a right to live here on our land.”
Before driving Lucia to a doctor’s appointment, Orlando shows off his old mango and avocado trees, the only ones left. The Capote mangoes are famously delicious. They used to give them to neighbors. This summer, they’ll reach over the fences, and give them to the construction workers.