Wawa in Coral Gables: The Controversy Continues

For a Historic Black Neighborhood, The New Wawa Project is A Dream Come True – Despite Opposition from Parents at The Nearby Elementary School

For nearly 20 years, a group of homeowners in Coral Gables’ only predominantly Black neighborhood has struggled to develop a valuable piece of property that would generate income to preserve their historic community while providing jobs and financial aid to the people who live there. 

They have been thwarted at every turn. Over the years, various plans by the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Foundation to build low-income housing, mixed-use residential and retail, and then a restaurant have run into financial, legal and political roadblocks that could not be overcome.

Wawa in Coral Gables
The Wawa convenience store and gas station is under construction amid controversy. 

Now, after years of frustration, the foundation has its project: A Wawa convenience store and gas station going up on the northeast corner of Grand Avenue and U.S. 1 that is scheduled to open later this year. In exchange for a multi-year lease on the 1.3-acre parcel, the Pennsylvania-based chain will begin pumping monthly payments to the foundation that can be used to rehabilitate homes in the MacFarlane Homestead and Golden Gate subdivisions, provide vocational training and scholarships for local students, and fund a Bahamian heritage museum to commemorate the lives of the area’s original settlers. 

“Even though this is not what it started out to be – affordable housing – I think it will end up being even better,” says chairperson Judith Davis, who, along with four other members of the foundation, recently sat down with Coral Gables Magazine for the first interview the group has given since the unveiling of the Wawa project. “It has taken all these years for something on this property. Wawa is a good fit because it will provide the income to do what we needed to do. We have a plan. And when you have your own money, you are able to do something for your own people.” 

Judith Davis, chairperson of the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Foundation.

Of course, there is opposition. The most vocal opponents are the parents of some students at G.W. Carver Elementary School, across the street from the project, who allege Wawa – with six fuel pumps, and alcohol and tobacco sales – poses a danger to health and safety. Several parents, like the Gables Accountability Project, have sued the city, asking a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge to halt the development for violating the zoning code and the comprehensive plan.

Yet construction of the Wawa is well underway. Massive 12,000-gallon fuel tanks have arrived to be buried underground, the parking area is marked off, and as construction begins on Wawa’s familiar beige and red building, topped off with its corporate logo of a Canada goose in flight, fans can almost taste that Gobbler turkey sandwich and frozen cappuccino. 

“I don’t have a problem with a gas station there,” says Dona Spain, who retired in December as director of the Gables’ Historic Resources & Cultural Arts after 23 years. Just before leaving to become board president of the Dade Heritage Trust, her department restored two homes in the MacFarlane Homestead Subdivision, the only part of Coral Gables listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

“I think it’s really important to help that community,” says Spain, pointing out that the Wawa site is not a part of the historic district. “The people who lived there literally built the city, and the area is fragile. We should do anything we can do to help them.”

A street in the MacFarlane Subdivision where Black families have been living for generations. 

For the five women who control the Foundation – all in their 70s and 80s – love of community runs as deep as memory and blood. Most are direct descendants of the Bahamian settlers who lived on the 20 acres that Coral Gables founder George Merrick set aside for workers in 1925. On that land, effectively segregated from the majority white residents of Coral Gables west of what is now U.S. 1, these skilled laborers put up bungalow and shotgun wood-frame vernacular-style built homes, even as they worked for Merrick cutting and building with coral rock. Many of those houses and walls endure today as among the city’s most distinctive features. 

Davis, a retired teacher now 72, went to elementary through high school at Carver when it was a segregated, poorly funded neighborhood school. She remembers when the land across Grand Avenue from the school was a thriving commercial district. There was a gas station on that lot, an apartment building, shotgun houses, a beauty shop and a takeout place that sold the best French fries Davis says she ever tasted. Around the corner was a liquor store called Happy Al’s. All were bulldozed years ago. 

Wawa in Coral Gables
From left to right: Judith Davis, Edwina Prime, Linda Dixie, Leona Cooper-Baker. All women are board members of the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Foundation.

Some MacFarlane residents live on properties where they were born, among them foundation secretary Leona Cooper-Baker, 84. Except for the years she went away to college, she has never left home. “I chose not to move away because this community is a part of my being,” says Cooper-Baker, a 1954 graduate of Carver High and also a retired school teacher. 

Outside of MacFarlane and the adjacent Golden Gate neighborhood, Cooper-Baker recalls, was the racially segregated Jim Crow South, a world of “colored” water fountains and seating for Blacks in the back of the bus. Inside the community were the people you knew. “When we walked down Grand Avenue, we had to behave, because if you didn’t, someone would tell your mother,” says Cooper-Baker. “All of us belonged to the community.” 

Foundation Secretary and retired teacher Leona Cooper-Baker, who graduated from Carver High in 1954, still lives on the property where she was born. 

The stop-and-start journey that led to Wawa began in 2003 when Miami-Dade County gave the triangular parcel to the LBW Homeowners Foundation of Coral Gables for $10. The value of that same parcel, pared down by street widening projects in recent years, is now at least $8 million, according to tax records. The foundation formed a partnership with Redevco, a company with a history of redeveloping homes in Miami-Dade minority communities. The initial plan was to build housing and retail in a development to be called Bahamian Village, along with a community center. 

In 2015, with the county threatening to take back the property because nothing had been built, homeowners asked Coral Gables to intervene. Officials came up with a fast-track plan that allowed the foundation to proceed with a new venture – a restaurant – while completing construction of an on-site community center. That center, which shares an office building with Redevco, opened in July 2017. But by January 2020, with the restaurant plan long since abandoned (it was to be a Tap 42), Gables city attorney Miriam Soler Ramos issued a legal opinion that cleared the way for a new project with “significant modifications” – the Wawa. The 5,800-square foot store will offer the standard Wawa complement of fresh foods, including hoagies, soups, baked goods, beer and wine; provide an outdoor eating area off Grand Avenue; and be separated from the homes behind it by a four-foot wall, hedges and trees. 

Students of Carver High in the class of 1954

“For a long time, others from outside the community had wanted to tell [the foundation] what to do with their money,” says Redevco President Debra Sinkle Kolsky. “Wawa is an excellent opportunity to generate community wealth. My job is to bring my expertise as a developer and help the foundation restore to the community what has been lost over the years.” Neither Sinkle Kolsky nor foundation officers would reveal the exact terms of the lease deal with Wawa. But they say the company has committed to provide at least 15 local jobs and contribute to a generous employee retirement fund. 

The project has won the backing of Commissioner Pat Keon and Vice Mayor Vince Lago, opposing candidates in the April mayoral election. “It’s important for them to preserve the community that for so many years nurtured and cared for them,” says Keon, a former Carver Elementary PTA president. “These women are asking nothing for themselves; everything is to be put back into community.”

Outgoing Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli is also a supporter. When, at an October 2020 community meeting, several Carver parents voiced strenuous objections to Wawa, the mayor brushed them aside, saying the complaints echoed those made by Coral Gables High School parents when the Shops at Merrick Park was being built. “Merrick Park was going to corrupt their kids, [they’d] flunk out because of the distractions. And nothing happened,” said Valdés-Fauli. “I understand the parents’ concerns, but I think they’re totally unjustified.” 

Gables resident Estelle M. Lockhart is the president of the Carver Elementary PTA and the parent of two children who attend the international studies magnet school. She says her chief objection to Wawa is that it poses an environmental hazard, in addition to insufficient notice by the city on their intent to expedite permits for the project. 

Wawa in Coral Gables: The Controversy Continues
G.W. Carver Elementary School on Grand Avenue is across the street from the Wawa project.

Miami-Dade School Board Member Maria Tere Rojas agreed in a statement she issued, saying that “there is no evidence that the board or the district had been formally notified of the approval of this proposed commercial development project that could bring significant and potentially objectionable activities within 1,000 feet of a nearby public school.” 

Lockhart, who has spoken to Davis, felt that a better use could have been found for the property. “The land has been in neutral for a long time and they are eager to get something going. I get that,” says Lockhart. “But a 20-year history is not case enough to make a bad decision. Let’s work together to do something better.” The time for finding a different solution may now be over, however, something that members of the MacFarlane homeowners group find to be a relief after decades of frustration. 

In recent years, Davis grew so tired of talking about the project that she responded to questions by reciting the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” She grew tired of the clear suggestions that community folks could not handle the project, or the money that might flow from it. Two men who established the foundation – William A. Cooper and Carl Prime – have died since the project began. 

“This was not one person’s dream; it was a group’s dream,” Davis says. “Will this give us the opportunity to make that dream happen? I hope so.”

2 thoughts on “Wawa in Coral Gables: The Controversy Continues

  • March 8, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing. It was a well written article, about a dedicated group of people. I’m glad that several points were clarified, including how the land for the gas station has been leased rather than sold, and how the payments from Wawa are going to be paid continuously, rather than in one lump sum. It was interesting to hear about how many former businesses were located on the land in question, including a previous gas 🚉 station. I’ve heard similar stories about former businesses located along Charles Avenue, although I don’t particularly think that means we need to recreate them. I would imagine that at least some of these segregation era businesses that used to exist were black owned, and perhaps that’s a happy aspect of the past that some would like to bring back, in the form of these up-zonings. I want to preserve the tranquility that exists now, and this article cautions me that my stance could be interpreted as bourgeois and selfish. I don’t want to imply that any of these community leaders are easily bought, because thanks to articles like this, I have been made aware of all the organizing that has going on for decades before I was here. I realize the same sort of thing could just as easily go on in a white neighborhood as a black neighborhood, and the scholarships could be paid through a local Lions Club just as easily as the Lola B. Walker Foundation. I do believe that these sort of “compromises” happen more often in needy neighborhoods, and perhaps that’s what I need to accept. Some activists like to emphasize that moving into the West Grove is moving into a community. Indeed the small “town within a town” aspect of the West Grove is partially what drew me here. I am probably just hesitant to accept that when you move into a (formerly) tight-knit community like this one, it seems you give up some of your rights as an individual, as compared to the South Grove, where it seems it is common for next door neighbors to sue one another and win. It is certainly easier to squeeze more donations (as well as tax dollars) out of an up-zoned lot than it is from an empty lot.

  • March 8, 2021 at 6:58 pm

    Homes vs cash! Sell out at it’s finest! Love the corruption!

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