- Associated Press - Saturday, October 6, 2018

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) - Cocoplum Circle, a scenic spot at the nexus of upscale neighborhoods, has been turned into a parking lot by Uber and Lyft drivers awaiting luxe fares, say walkers and joggers who are complaining about trash, cigarette butts, loud radio music and men peeing in the bushes.

A dozen SUV drivers tend to congregate every evening at the traffic circle - officially named Cartagena Circle. During the day drivers also use the circle, which has free parking ringed around two sections, as a hangout. Located in Coral Gables by the yacht-lined Gables Waterway and at the intersection of LeJeune Road, Old Cutler Road and Sunset Drive, it’s a convenient point from which to answer calls from residents of Coconut Grove, South Miami and the gated Cocoplum development, where wealthy customers often order ride-share vehicles comparable in size to their houses.

UberBLACK or UberSUV fares in roomy, cushy Escalades or Suburbans run three times higher than those for UberPOOL or UberX Honda Civics or Kia Sorrentos hailed by the proletariat population. So it’s worthwhile for the drivers to use Cocoplum Circle as their staging area.

But the busy circle is popular among people who like to run, walk or ride on the bike path, relax in Ingraham Park, picnic or fish by the canal or pause on a shaded bench. They say the drivers have become a nuisance.

“The drivers hang out on the sidewalk and behave in a manner that is not what we would like in our neighborhood,” Jaime Borja wrote in an email to the Riviera Neighborhood Association.

The drivers chat, smoke, snack, drink beer and play music on their car radios, Borja and other neighbors said.

“More than once I’ve seen them going over the fence down to the canal and leaving food waste, cigarette butts - even urinating,” he said. “My argument is that if a taxi company decided to set up shop in the rotunda that would not be permitted.”

Sue Kawalerski lives nearby and takes walks through the circle. She said not only do the drivers take up parking and bench space but they’ve forced pedestrians to “wedge through a swarm of men who stared, leered and created a very uncomfortable situation.”

Coral Gables Commissioner Pat Keon, who lives on Edgewater Drive and walks around the area, said she’s never felt intimidated and hasn’t heard complaints from any other women.

“I have never been bothered by any of these drivers, either, but I’m old and can’t even remember the last time someone leered at me,” Keon wrote in an email to Kawalerski.

Gil Polanco conversed with two other Uber drivers as they waited at the circle for their cellphones to light up on a recent afternoon. Traffic whirled around the circle. He said he has not observed rude behavior. He blamed fishermen for littering.

“We’re just trying to do our jobs and not interfere with anyone,” he said, lamenting that September is the slowest month of the year. “This is public parking. We want to wait here for the least amount of time and provide good service.”

The drivers haven’t been cleared out by the city precisely because certain residents prefer to have them at their beck and call, Kawalerski said.

“Rich people demand instant service and commissioners kowtow to rich constituents,” she said. “For months, what was a lovely overlook and park area has looked like a third-world parking zone. We’ve got a motorcade of big black SUVs idling here seven days a week.”

Neighbors say they object to drivers conducting private business on public property.

“The city would never allow food trucks or mobile dog groomers to hang out here,” Kawalerski said. “This is commercial intrusion in a public space.”

The city responded to complaints by assigning a regular cleanup crew and police patrols to the circle. Vehicles are no longer blocking sidewalks and the amount of litter has been reduced. The city can’t fine or remove the drivers if they are not doing anything illegal, former city manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark said in an email.

“We have not identified any enforceable violations, as this area around Cartagena Circle has long been designated as public parking with no posted signs restricting time of day, length of time or types of vehicles,” said Swanson-Rivenbark, who has since resigned her position. “As you also know we cannot restrict smoking in public rights of way.

“We recognize that these vehicles provide a valuable service to the adjacent Coral Gables neighborhoods while not parking in front of an individual home or swale while awaiting a call.”

Uber has not received any complaints about the situation at Cocoplum, company spokesman Javier Correoso said, but always requires its drivers to follow its community guidelines, which emphasize that “your behavior matters.”

“Driver-partners using the Uber app are expected to act in compliance with all relevant local and traffic laws, including respecting private property,” Correoso said.

Gables Commissioner Vince Lago would like to devise a compromise or find a different parking lot for the ride-share drivers, like the waiting area that was created for them at Miami International Airport.

In the meantime, Cocoplum homeowners - like the seller of an “elegant” 15,532-square-foot, nine-bathroom Tahiti Beach mansion listed for $13.5 million - have the next best thing to a chauffeur.


Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com

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