Business Monday

Charm, eateries — and location, location, location — lure companies to Coral Gables

PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY: Coral Gables’ business district has an ambience that spans old buildings and modern architecture. This view is near the SunTrust Bank building at 201 Alhambra Circle, looking east.
PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY: Coral Gables’ business district has an ambience that spans old buildings and modern architecture. This view is near the SunTrust Bank building at 201 Alhambra Circle, looking east. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of quarterly profiles of South Florida business districts.

When Fred Medina was looking for a home last year for the branch of BBC America serving Latin America, he decided that Coral Gables offered everything: pleasant atmosphere, central location, a good talent pool to draw on, easy access to the airport, and plenty of restaurants and hotels nearby.

Frederick “Rick’ Wilson, a senior executive at Bacardi, particularly appreciates the proximity to Miami International Airport. He can even see it from the top floor of Bacardi’s 5-year-old headquarters at 2701 Le Jeune Rd.

Officials of Fiduciary Trust International of the South were eager to get away from the congestion near their office at 200 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami. Last year they leased 12,500 square feet at 2 Alhambra Plaza in Coral Gables. “A lot of executives feel that if they don’t have to be downtown or on Brickell that they would much rather be in Coral Gables,’’ said Diana Parker, senior vice president of the CBRE real estate firm, which handled the transaction.

For international companies — and yes, foreign consulates like those of Spain, Italy and Australia — seeking a marbled Miami office with an upscale attitude, “The City Beautiful” is often first choice for their Miami headquarters.

While the Gables has long been a business nexus, it has become even more popular in recent years.

María Cristina Barrios, consul-general of Spain, loves “the Spanish atmosphere of Coral Gables.” Her consulate is on Valencia Avenue, just two blocks from Sevilla. Her official residence is on Granada Boulevard, and, of course, a few blocks away is Ponce de Leon.

A total of just under 184,000 square feet of Class A office space was leased in Coral Gables in 2014, according to figures compiled by CBRE /commercial realty (Airport/Doral, the next busiest local submarket, saw approximately 140,000 square feet of space absorbed. The Brickell area recorded about 126,000 square feet.) Counting all classes of office spaces, the Gables added about 240,000 square feet last year, as opposed to just under 66,000 in 2013.

Those who have made the move to the Gables laud its proximity to the airport. But the praise doesn’t stop there. Company officials also talk about safety, plentiful parking and the ease of access as compared with downtown and Brickell.

“I’ve even had employees who bike to work,” Medina said.

There are lots of restaurants within easy walking distance, In fact, with nearly 300 restaurants (according to Trip Advisor) inside the city’s borders, Coral Gables is one of South Florida’s favorite spots for foodies, with a variety of national cuisines.

Popular places for business lunches include the area’s steakhouses — Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris and Christy’s, to name a few — and longtime favorites like Cafe Abbracci or JohnMartin’s; quick breakfast-and-lunch places like the Threefold Cafe on Giralda Avenue, home to the Gables’ restaurant row; and eateries along Alhambra such as Cafe Demetrio, the Green Gables Café, the Mint Leaf Brasserie and The Globe, to name a few. (It’s also true that many owners of restaurants once nestled among the city’s quaint shops say that Coral Gables’ high rents prompted them to move elsewhere.) And the area will undergo another facelift: Last August, the City of Coral Gables OK’d a $20 million beautification project along Miracle Mile and Giralda.

But the City Beautiful, with its Mediterranean-European charm, has more than good looks and good places to eat to recommend it: It’s packed with amenities:

Westin, Marriott and Hyatt all have hotels within the city’s business area; Westin’s Colonnade, for instance, which fronts Aragon Avenue, is a popular place to hold high-end business events. The Miracle Theater, home of the critically acclaimed Actors’ Playhouse, and the more recently opened Coral Gables Art Cinema, which hosts movies often not in wide distribution, are arts oases. So are the bookstores, including the original location of Books & Books on Aragon Avenue and the Barnes & Nobles store on Miracle Mile.

A short drive away is the iconic Biltmore Hotel, which dates back to the city’s founding in the 1920s; the city’s two tennis centers and two public golf courses; the Hollywood-esque Venetian Pool, whose swimming classes during the summer are popular; the University of Miami; and a network of pocket parks and green spaces. These are near the banyan-shaded streets where some of the county’s most expensive real estate (and strictest building codes) are found. (In residential areas, street names are inscribed on white rocks on the ground; Dave Barry once joked that they were the result of a public-access lawsuit filed by snakes.)

Public transportation is also readily available, including the free trolley that runs along Ponce de Leon, noted Grace Silvera of Cable & Wireless, which moved into the Gables in 2013.

In short, said Mark Trowbridge, president of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, “Lots of CEOs want to live in the Gables, so they like to have their offices nearby.’’

Coral Gables Mayor James Cason is arguably the city’s biggest cheerleader. He said he is constantly meeting with officials of companies, both here and abroad, that have expressed an interest in moving to the Gables. He recently traveled with officials of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce to Curitiba, Brazil, with which a “sister city” arrangement is pending. The Gables already has such relationships with Aix-en Provence, France; Cartegena, Colombia; Granada, Spain; La Antigua, Guatemala; Quito, Ecuador; and the Province of Pisa, Italy.

The Gables has become a hub in particular for companies with ties to or interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cason said.

One of the most recent arrivals is the Latin America branch of BBC America, which moved into an 8,000-square-foot space on the 10th floor at 255 Alhambra last year. The office’s main business is selling BBC content dubbed into Spanish and Portuguese to companies in Latin America.

Medina, the company’s executive vice president, said there were three logical places for the office — Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Miami. He chose Miami because it had greater air accessibility than the other two cities, and he chose Coral Gables because it had “the right space, the right accessibility, the right environment.’’

The company has since added another 3,000 square feet next to its office for a BBC news bureau.

Another British company that moved to South Florida in recent years is Cable & Wireless Communications, a British transplant that dates to the 1850s. Company officials said it relocated to South Florida because of its proximity to the Caribbean, where the company focuses its business. It is now at 1 Alhambra Plaza.

Not all of the recent arrivals to Coral Gables are newcomers to South Florida. Bacardi, whose headquarters are in Hamilton, Bermuda, has long had its Bacardi USA base on Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown Miami, in the iconic Bacardi Building. When company officials realized they were outgrowing their nearly half-century-old home, they wound up choosing Coral Gables.

Wilson, the company’s senior vice president, external affairs and corporate responsibility, was instrumental in selecting the site. Bacardi got lucky, he said. A 16-story office building was being constructed for Burger King, but the company suddenly backed out and Bacardi grabbed it. The grand opening was in February 2010.

The building has room for everything the company needed — a bar (for professional purposes only, of course), artwork, extensive conference space, the company’s archives, a large cafeteria and also a gym for employees, even a half basketball court on top of the seven-story parking garage.

The office is also close to many restaurants that serve Bacardi’s various alcoholic products. So being nearby has allowed Bacardi officials to get to know restaurant owners and acquaint them with the company’s latest offerings.

In addition, Wilson discovered that for 70 percent of Bacardi’s employees, the new location was closer to their homes. It’s certainly closer to his, in the city of Miami but only about a block from Coral Gables. “Everybody enjoys a lesser commute,” he said.

That was also a factor for another local firm that moved to Coral Gables recently. The local branch of the Hinshaw & Culbertson law firm rented the fourth floor at 2525 Ponce in 2012 and added another approximately 7,000 square feet on the sixth floor in 2013. The company has 69 employees, including 41 attorneys.

Ron Kammer, the head of the firm, said it originally was based at 200 S. Biscayne Blvd. but moved in 2000 to the downtown Dadeland area because many employees hated having to drive all the way downtown.

At the time, Dadeland was a desirable location because of easy access via Metrorail to the downtown courthouses. “We had people making at least a trip a day back in those days [carrying documents],” Kammer said. But now, with the advent of electronic filing, frequent trips to the courthouses are no longer necessary.

Kammer said the new location is much more convenient and attractive to clients, many of whom live or work in Coral Gables. “People just like coming here,” he said.

Those same qualities appeal to the many foreign consulates that have long made Coral Gables their home-away-from-home.Coral Gables counts 14 in the city currently, plus a new Brazilian consulate that opened recently at 3150 SW 38th Ave., just a few feet from the city line.

Spain’s consulate has been in the Gables since 1972, said Karen Martin, first secretary of the consulate. It has been in various locations in the city; Martin said that at one time the consulate occupied the second floor of the old fire station on Salzedo. “We even had the fire pole,” she said.

Barrios, consul-general since August 2010, is a longtime foreign service officer who previously was Spanish ambassador to Mexico, Sweden and Latvia. She said the office at 2655 Le Jeune provides plenty of room for not only the consulate but also Spanish trade and tourist offices and a couple of other government departments.

Barrios pointed out that access to the airport is important because the consulate serves not only Florida but also Georgia and South Carolina. Sometimes people have to fly in to conduct business that can only be transacted in person, so being in Coral Gables is an advantage.

Airport accessibility is also important to consulates of smaller countries. Gail Thompson, deputy consul of the Caribbean nation of Barbados, said that her office at 2121 Ponce serves 11 states — as far north as Kentucky and as far west as Texas. There are people who have to conduct business in person at her consulate as well.

Cason, the mayor — a former foreign service officer whose posts included head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and ambassador to Paraguay — said he is working to lure more consulates to the Gables. (Already, he pointed out, many of the consul generals live in Coral Gables even if their consulates are located elsewhere in South Florida.)

Cason said that Honduras and Paraguay, which now have offices elsewhere in Miami-Dade County, are looking for space. In fact, he said, Brazil would have moved to the Gables if someplace with a suitable amount of space had been located.

Actually, lack of space for both corporations and consulates may be the Gables’ biggest problem in the coming years, the mayor said. “We are practically built out.”

Still pending zoning approval, the biggest development on the drawing boards is the Mediterranean Village project encompassing almost seven acres on the east side of Ponce Circle just a few blocks south of Miracle Mile. It is supposed to include 314,000 square feet of Class A office space, a high-end hotel with 184 rooms, plus restaurants, retail establishments, a gym and a multiplex cinema. The project also would include three residential towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses.

Besides that, Cason said, about the only other major space available is the site of a former car dealer's lot along South Dixie Highway between Ponce and Le Jeune that was once being considered for a Dadeland-type development.

Kammer, whose law office has been in three different Miami-Dade County buildings in the past 20 years, possibly summed up the allure of Coral Gables the best: “It’s the nicest location where we’ve ever worked.’’

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of rooms and the number of townhouses in the Mediterranean Village project.

Coral Gables: quick facts

In 2014:

▪ The average household income for Coral Gables: $114,926

▪ Compared to: Miami Beach: $69,344

▪ Compared to: Miami Dade County: $60,780

Employers in Coral Gables, with the

number of employees they have:

▪ University of Miami: 12,818

▪ Baptist Health: 11,353

▪ Biltmore Hotel: 563

Sources: Nielsen 2014; Beacon Council

Largest employes in

the Gables: a sampling

▪ American Airlines

▪ Bacardi U.S.A.

▪ Bank of America

▪ Baptist Health South Florida HQ

▪ Bayview Financial Trading Group

▪ The Biltmore Hotel

▪ Cargill

▪ The Collection

▪ C3TS/Stantec

▪ Coral Gables Hospital

▪ Dade County Public Schools

▪ Del Monte Fresh Produce

▪ Diageo

▪ Doctors Hospital

▪ Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell

▪ First United Bank

▪ Gables Engineering

▪ Gibraltar Bank

▪ HBO Latin America

▪ Hyatt Regency Coral Gables

▪ IBM Corporation

▪ Kindred Hospital S. Fla. Coral Gables

▪ Kraft Foods Caribbean Sales

▪ Mercantil Commerce Bank, N.A.

▪ Mercedes-Benz of Coral Gables

▪ Merrill Lynch Bank & Trust Co.

▪ Odebrecht Corporation

▪ Richemont Latin America & Caribbean

(As of 2014)

Foreign offices and consular offices in the Gables:

▪ ACC1Ó (Government of Catalonia Agency)

▪ Consulate General of Barbados

▪ Consulate General of Colombia

▪ Consulate General of El Salvador

▪ Consulate General of Italy

▪ Italian Trade Commission

▪ Consulate General of St. Lucia

▪ Consulate General of the Principality of Monaco

▪ Consulate of Norway

▪ Consulate General of Spain

▪ Spanish Trade Commission

▪ Tourist Office of Spain

▪ Spanish Office of Education

▪ Consulate General of Uruguay

▪ Honorary Consulate of Australia

▪ Honorary Consulate of Belize

▪ Honorary Consulate of Hungary

▪ Honorary Consulate General of St. Kitts & Nevis

▪ Honorary Consulate General of Thailand

▪ Office of Foreign Missions

▪ Taipei Economic & Cultural Office

(As of 2014)

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