Just five years short of a century ago, developer George Merrick conjured up a Mediterranean fantasyland on his family’s holdings of scrub pine and avocado groves just outside the backwater city of Miami. He called it Coral Gables, and it was good.
The city beautiful that Merrick romantically baptized “Miami Riviera” would have it all: Charming Spanish-style homes and gracious Italian villas masterfully laid out amid gardens, lush boulevards and golf courses; imposing formal entrances; a university and a thriving business district. In promotional brochures, its crown jewel, the Biltmore Hotel and its 300-foot tower, rose out of the humid mist like a mirage in Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”.
Merrick’s vision, and the master plan and strict controls he drew up to realize it, have endured through boom and bust, firmly establishing Coral Gables as one of the most desirable, stable and envied communities in Florida.
Now it’s gone on steroids.
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Enthusiastic backers of a new wave of high-rise, mixed-use development, including city leaders, say it’s re-invigorating the city, enhancing Merrick’s vision and turning its once-stodgy downtown into a lively urban neighborhood. But some residents fear that what’s made the Gables special could be obliterated in a rush to build big.
No visitor to the Gables can miss its redrawn face. The city’s downtown and commercial corridors of South Dixie Highway and LeJeune Road bristle with construction cranes erecting Mediterranean-inspired buildings of a scale and density Merrick could not have foreseen.
A dozen large-scale projects recently inaugurated, nearing completion or just now under construction are delivering around 2,000 condos and apartments, hundreds of hotel rooms and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, restaurants and offices to the Gables in the span of a few years. It’s a surge likely not rivaled since Merrick began building his city in earnest in 1924.
The biggest by far, Agave Ponce group’s massive, $600 million The Plaza Coral Gables, will spread across seven acres and three city blocks on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, just south of the recently revamped Miracle Mile. The project, the largest in Coral Gables history, will encompass 242 hotel rooms, 164 apartments and lofts, 160,000 square feet of retail, 445,000 square feet of office space and 2,000 parking spaces.
And that’s after city planners and commissioners scaled back an initial plan during three years of stringent review — and after the developers trimmed it again, redesigning and renaming the former Mediterranean Village project, in response to changing market conditions following approval in 2015. Agave finally began construction on the first of two phases last year, with completion expected in May 2020.
The tweaks include less retail space and more office, reflecting a downturn in the fortunes of brick-and-mortar retail and unflagging demand for workspace in downtown Coral Gables. Agave also scaled down a hotel tower that would have exceeded the usually strictly observed height cap of 190 feet for usable space in the city, not including spires and cupolas.
The Agave project’s shifted footprint now places the bulk of construction around a one-acre plaza with a historic building — the turreted, three-story studio of Merrick’s noted city designers, architect Phineas Paist and artist Denman Fink — at its center. The new plaza opens up to Ponce Circle Park. Agave executive Gregory Schwartz boasts the project, designed by the international firm CallisonRTKL, is so consequential it will shift the center of downtown south.
“It’s going to open right up to the park, shift the center of gravity towards the park, and create the new social, civic center for the city,” Schwartz said. “The plaza embodies the spirit of the project.”
A few blocks west, a new mid-rise Aloft hotel introduces a sense of walkable urbanism to the traffic-choked gash of LeJeune Road, with arcades along the ground floor, a garage that’s concealed within the building and a street-facing restaurant and outdoor cafe.
The change in scale and approach that it represents is abundantly clear. The Aloft building comes right up to the sidewalk and goes straight up to create an arcaded street wall, an approach that planners say creates a welcoming, sheltered space for pedestrians. The hotel’s suburban-style neighbors, by contrast, are set back, often behind a parking lot and a fringe of scraggly greenery — an approach that planners say is less inviting.
Abutting the downtown’s western border on Douglas Road is the curving hulk of Gables Columbus Center, a newly opened 200-unit apartment building designed by Behar, Font & Partners that backs directly up to the quaint, stucco three-story La Palma Hotel from 1924. One of the earliest surviving commercial buildings downtown, and protected as a historic landmark, it’s now hemmed in by towers.
Farther south, in the former industrial district south of Bird Road that’s gradually been converted into a mid-rise residential neighborhood since the 2002 launch of the Shops at Merrick Park, the latest addition is about to open. Crews are putting the finishing touches on Astor Companies’ Merrick Manor, a 227-unit, 10-story condo, also designed by Behar, Font, that fills nearly an entire block and overlooks LeJeune Road and Coral Gables High. Its value at sell-out is estimated at $160 million.
Just north of Miracle Mile, a nearly finished deluxe 33-unit condo building, Giralda Place, stretches nearly the full length of a block on Giralda Avenue, with a new art gallery on one corner. A gym and Bread Cycle, a health-conscious Mediterranean restaurant, are among other planned sidewalk amenities. The building, which varies in height but is 90 feet high at its tallest point, replaced a strip of nondescript, low-scale modern storefronts.
The $65 million project, with a clean, upated Mediterranean design by architect John Fullerton, also encompasses a renovated bank building on the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard that houses 700 WeWork shared-office desks. WeWork joins competitor Pipeline, which opened a shared workspace floor in the downtown Gables in 2015.
That’s a fresh wrinkle for the formerly buttoned-down Gables workplace aesthetic that Giralda Place developer Christopher “Cristo” Brown says portends the broader sea change in store for the neighborhood.
“In the next six months, it’s going to be a very different feel here, a more energetic one,” Brown said. “You’re going to see more and younger people out and about. There’s going to be buzz and you’re going to see people coming in from other areas who would not have made the drive before. People want walkability and all the Gables has to offer.”
That a city of 50,000 should be in line to absorb so much new development is the result not just of its lasting desirability, but the redevelopment tsunami overtaking much of neighboring Miami. A seemingly insatiable, pent-up demand for urban, walkable places across the region has dovetailed with a determination by Gables leaders to turn the city’s downtown — long a regional business center where sidewalk cafes were banned and streets quiet after office hours — into a denser, full-service, live-in urban hub.
The thinking is straightforward: Build dense to bring in enough residents and workers to support a variety of shops, amenities and activities in close proximity, and people will happily walk more and drive less. Planners say that creates an appealing alternative to sprawling auto-dependent development of the kind that has dominated South Florida for decades, fostering desirable growth while keeping a lid on traffic congestion.
There’s another big benefit for the city. Downtown properties already account for as much as 40 percent of the city’s tax base, said Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli. That allows the city to boast of one of the lowest property-tax rates of any city offering full fire and police services in Miami-Dade County, he said.
While he could not provide a precise figure for how much new development will add to the city’s bottom line, Valdes-Fauli said it’s substantial and will help preserve those low rates while producing “a very livable Coral Gables.”
“We have measured development, rational development,” Valdes-Fauli said. “I see it as a continuation of what Coral Gables is and has been. We don’t want a Brickell.”
There’s a way to go to reach the critical mass that will fill the new buildings and generate the level of street life and retail revival the city wants, said Bill Kerdyk Jr., a former Gables commissioner and CEO of Kerdyk Real Estate. But it’s starting to work. Many of those now renting and buying downtown are empty-nesters who don’t want to deal with car commutes to work, dine out or see a film or a play, said Kerydk, who represents the new Gables Columbus Center apartment tower.
“That was once a foreign concept, having people living downtown,” said Kerdyk. In the mid-1990s, when developer Armando Codina built the first apartment building in the business district on the old bus station site, that project, too, faced considerable skepticism. “Now you come down on a Wednesday night, and it’s hard to find a place to park, and there is a buzz about being downtown.
“I think having people living downtown will reinvigorate the retail. It comes back to quality of life. That’s what the city of Coral Gables offers.”
To many residents, though, the increased mass and density is jarring. So is a longstanding city code requirement that requires buildings and entryways that come right to the edge of the sidewalk, something which planners say creates a true walkable city environment and fosters pedestrian activity.
All that some critics see, though, is concrete, increasing traffic and a loss of the modest neighborhood scale that once characterized the Gables’ urban districts.
“These big buildings are consuming the streetscape,” said Ellen Uguccione, a longtime resident and former historic preservation chief for the Gables and neighboring Miami. “I think it overwhelms. The downtown district in the 1920s was small-scale buildings. We have to evolve. But that evolution needs to take into account what buildings existed before and pay homage by stepping back.
”We need to be more astute and ask, ‘What is the essence of Coral Gables?’ ”
Uguccione stressed that the city has so far managed to protect its residential areas from intrusive or inappropriate development.
But longtime Gables resident Sue Kawalerski watches the march of the cranes down South Dixie Highway and, like many of her neighbors, is afraid. Very afraid.
Like many in the Gables, they fear that what they describe as a developer-friendly city commission will turn Coral Gables into a facsimile of Miami’s high-density, high-rise Brickell district, and downtown and U.S. 1 into concrete canyons.
“They have absolutely no regard for what residents want,” Kawalerski said.
To be sure, Coral Gables has seen waves of large-scale development before. The real estate bust of the late 1920s brought Merrick’s dream to a close with much of his city yet unbuilt. Things didn’t pick up until after World War II, when Miracle Mile was built and Modernism was the style of choice. By the time Mediterranean architecture came back into vogue in the 1980s, many original downtown Gables buildings had been replaced with a new run of taller, modern office buildings.
Some more-recent Med-style buildings have come under fire for mediocre architecture and ungainly proportions unbecoming of Merrick’s handiwork, but city planners say they have cracked down and sharpened the quality of design. Most of the new buildings eschew pastels and pasted-on detailing for whites and a pared-down, contemporary version of Mediterranean design that may be more appealing and sophisticated.
But what’s also different about them, critics say, is their sheer bulk and in-your-face presence.
The two most attention-drawing and controversial of the new projects loom on South Dixie. The mixed-use complexes by NP International, now under construction, represent an obvious shift in scale for the corridor, now dominated by mostly low-scale, suburban-style strip malls.
Hugging the sidewalk between the elevated Metrorail tracks and the traffic-choked highway, the 504-unit Gables Station extends all the way from LeJeune Road to the intersection of Ponce de Leon and South Dixie, requiring no fewer than five cranes for construction. The apartment complex is designed to capitalize on adjacent transit and the planned Underline, the 10-mile bike and running trail connecting to downtown Miami. A public plaza lined with shops and food will connect to the Underline through a colonnade.
Farther south, on the site of a former Holiday Inn across from the University of Miami, NPI’s Paseo de la Riviera will include a 10-story, 252-room hotel, 224 apartments in a 13-story tower, and retail around a plaza. An imposing arch leads out to Jaycee Park and the residential neighborhood behind it.
Both NPI projects, designed by Coral Gables architect Jorge Hernandez and architectural giant Gensler, required changes in zoning to accommodate greater density and height, prompting complaints that the city was not hewing to its code. The height of the Paseo tower matches that of a 1971 office tower next door that’s now owned by the University of Miami. The UM tower, though, is slimmer and set back behind parking because its footprint is suburban.
City planners and elected officials see both projects as a new, transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly model to replace the strip-mall mode of development along that stretch, extending the Gables brand of Mediterranean architecture to the nondescript, auto-dominated corridor.
But Kawalerski, president of the Riviera Neighborhood Association, sees high-density development and its impact, like increased traffic and blocked skies, starting to encroach on the garden-like tranquility of her single-family neighborhood. The association bitterly fought the Paseo project, which won commission approval by a 4-1 vote..
“It’s right on top of U.S. 1, and it’s a big block of cement,” she said. “How could you allow that to happen?”
Commissioner Vince Lago, considered a voice for moderation in development on the body, favored the Paseo project after it was scaled back, but voted against Gables Station because he thought it was too big for the location and would generate too much traffic at what’s already a choke point. He said the city needs to be “prudent” and some projects need to be scaled back. But he also noted that most are built to what the city code allows, giving commissioners little ability to alter them.
Still, he defended the city’s overall strategy, noting that it’s already bearing fruit downtown.
“It’s very welcoming,” Lago said. “You see a lot of families and young professionals enjoying downtown, which is what we envisioned.”
Lago said the city has also been astute in developing transportation alternatives in tandem with the more intensive redevelopment. Those include a growing bus-trolley circulator network, an experiment with shared electric scooters that appears to be succeeding, and establishment and expansion of the on-demand Freebee electric golf-cart system in the city.
The current Gables boom has been simmering for at least five years, when City Hall was flooded with development proposals at the height of the real-estate expansion that’s now in retreat. But projects were slowed in part by drawn-out, painstaking review by city planners and, in the case of Paseo, unsuccessful litigation by unhappy residents. The Agave project, for instance, could not win approval until it was shrunk and the developers agreed to donating millions of dollars worth of public amenities, including incorporating a stop for the city’s expanding system of free bus trolleys as well as paying for new vehicles for the service.
Another major project, a long-contemplated proposal for redevelopment of two obsolete city parking garages on Andalusia Avenue, has been under negotiation while undergoing substantial revisions and downsizing for two years. The Allen Morris Company and Related Group were selected in a competition by the city with a plan that would combine public parking with retail, residential and office space. The Coral Gables commission will consider the plan in March, though critics concerned about overdevelopment are pushing for the city to finance and build new garages on its own, at a cost of around $40 million, without the developers.
“We’ve been trying to find the right balance,” said Anthony De Yurre, an attorney for the developers, describing the city review. “We have made a significant number of concessions. They have been very collaborative with us. You can’t do anything that’s not world-class in Coral Gables.”
City officials say smart planning, adherence to the 190-foot height cap, rigorous review of new designs by planners and the Gables board of architects, and close attention to what happens at street level together ensure new development hews to Merrick’s plan while fostering greater urban density where it’s called for. The city’s long-established Mediterranean bonus rules grant developers greater density than allowed by the basic zoning code if they adhere to Mediterranean design precepts like arcades and courtyards.
“In my opinion, we are fulfilling the original vision,” said Coral Gables planning director Ramon Trias, who hung framed, blown-up architectural drawings of city landmarks such as the Biltmore throughout his department to show applicants the high bar they must clear to win approval. “This is very rare in American cities, that something was that well thought-out and has been carried out for a century.
“Merrick had a very clear vision. The people who crafted it were very professional. We have the history, the tradition, and people who really care. What other city gets to this level of quality?”
All mixed-use buildings in the city require commission approval, even after they have been closely vetted — and usually significantly modified — by planners and review boards. All get a public and sometimes contentious airing, especially when developers seek variances. Those few that are approved, Trias argues, usually improve a building because a zoning code can’t anticipate all circumstances.
“I’ve never worked with a commission that gets so involved in design,” Trias said. “Sometimes there is conflict, but that’s a very good thing. Always, the projects get better. It’s that kind of passion that makes Coral Gables Coral Gables.”
The type of design quality the city demands can add 25 percent to the cost of development, Trias said, but he contends it pays off both for developers and residents.
Veteran developer Armando Codina agrees wholeheartedly. Codina, who built some large commercial buildings on LeJeune road in the Gables in previous booms in addition to the first downtown apartment building, says the city has the approach and the downtown scale about right — though he, too, disagrees with the rules requiring no building setback from the sidewalk.
“I happen to like the scale of Coral Gables, and I like how careful they are,” he said.
Codina went an extra mile or two in conceiving and building his newest project, built on a former parking lot just north of Alhambra Circle. The newly inaugurated 2020 Salzedo consists of a five-story office building with a stately rotunda, an expansive public courtyard that will hold tables for a new bakery and restaurant by star Lebanese-Puerto Rican pastry chef Antonio Bachour, opening Friday, as well as a 213-unit apartment tower. Codina said he personally “went after” Bachour, who will teach other chefs in a glassed-in kitchen once a month.
The building, where Codina moved his headquarters, is clearly a labor of love. So is the masonry front of the rotunda, which also bears the Codina name discreetly etched in the concrete. He commissioned well-known Miami artist Naomi Fisher to design elegant black terrazzo floors in the lobby and elevator landings of the building. Each features a different design with native palm fronds and plants. Fisher also designed metal gates that open to the courtyard. The office building balconies, meanwhile, have Cuban-tile floors.
His architects at Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe took special care to get details and proportions right, so that the building echoes the skillful and evocative Mediterranean design that Merrick’s architects were so good at.
“I care,” Codina said. “We view this as our second home.”
The city has been carefully laying the groundwork for the downtown transformation since the 1990s, when it acquired the Miracle Theatre movie house and renovated it for use as a live drama venue by Actors’ Playhouse. Since then, it created an arthouse cinema on the ground floor of a new parking garage across from the storied Books & Books shop. It converted and expanded the original fire and police station, an Art Deco landmark by Paist in coral rock, into the Coral Gables Museum.
After years of debate and planning, the city also embarked on a thorough makeover of downtown’s main street, Miracle Mile, dramatically expanding sidewalks and restoring entry plazas and fountains.
Since opening last year, along with a companion conversion of the Giralda Avenue restaurant row into a pedestrian plaza, the $20 million project has been credited with luring new dining spots and shops and boosting street life and foot traffic. Drawn-out construction, however, also claimed some longtime merchants and restaurateurs who did not survive.
“Those two years really crushed a lot of existing tenants,” Kerdyk said. “It’s only now coming back.”
The shake-out may not be done. Last week, Tarpon Bend restaurant, a 15-year-old mainstay on the mile, closed abruptly. The owner blamed higher taxes and maintenance costs passed on to the business by the landlord. But Tarpon Bend also faced increasing competition from new bars and restaurants catering to the young professional crowd he relied on.
Some skeptics are concerned that the Gables has not yet refreshed its stale image sufficiently to attract the necessary big numbers of those young people, many of whom see Mediterranean architecture as their parents’ speed and might instead prefer to patronize a resurrecting Coconut Grove or Midtown Miami.
But some seem willing to gamble on it. The former Scientology building on Giralda, the city’s original post office, is now being renovated and expanded by a developer to house several restaurants and a rooftop lounge, for instance. The building sat on the market for two years until the Giralda makeover was approved, said Kerdyk, who handled the sale.
“It’s going to take Giralda a little time to retool with some more restaurants, but it’s going to be a really nice scene,” Kerdyk said.
The combination of public foresight, the emphasis on culture and the encouragement of mixed-use development downtown is attracting new developers to the Gables who might not have considered it previously, said Rishi Kapoor, founder of Location Ventures.
Kapoor is now seeking to raise the ante exponentially on downtown Gables condo living.
He’s won city approval for Villa Valencia, a lavishly amenitized, 13-story condo on the edge of downtown where the top penthouse will be priced at $10.5 million. Kapoor expects a sellout will yield $111 million. The average size of the 39 units is an expansive 3,000 square feet, he said, and the building is designed for affluent, downsizing Gables couples who don’t want to give up the space of a house — and want to spend less time in a car while enjoying an urban lifestyle.
The retooled, upscaled downtown Gables fits the bill perfectly, and he expects other developers to follow suit at that very high end, he said.
“Coral Gables has gone through this beautiful rejuvenation,” he said. “Look at Miracle Mile and Giralda. It’s unrecognizable from 10 years ago. Now people are seeing it as a hub for an elegant lifestyle. We think the Gables market is hungry for it.”
Yet it’s that feeling of not recognizing the Gables anymore that gives many residents an uneasy feeling.
Despite its famed zeal for architecture and preservation, the city has at times failed to guard its legacy in the face of development pressure, said Karelia Carbonell, president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables. Last year Carbonell led a drive to save the last standing building from Merrick’s original business district, the LaSalle cleaners building. The city had a deal with the owners to demolish it and replace it with a parking lot but backed off under public pressure. But the city decided earlier this year not to purchase the building because the owners were asking too much, leaving its fate in limbo.
“It would be a sad day in Coral Gables if that building came down,” Carbonell said.
Carbonell is now tilting at an even more unlikely windmill. She is urging the city to reconsider its decision to tear down its existing fire and police station, a 1970s example of severe, sculptural Brutalist architecture that many in the city deride as “The Thing.”
The city approved a deal to swap the station property with Codina. He owned a lot catty-corner from his 2020 Salzedo where the city is now building a $34 million, 190,000-square-foot new public-safety building, designed by international architectural and engineering firm AECOM in a modernized version of Mediterranean style. Codina said he has not decided what would replace the old station.
But Carbonell, who organized a panel of noted architects last month to highlight the historic value of the Brutalist style, said the station represents a modern phase of the city’s evolution that’s as much worth preserving as the LaSalle.
Meanwhile, she said, the newest buildings are not only much larger than what they replace, but often architecturally bland, without the sense of grace, creativity or proportion of the Mediterranean style that inspired Merrick. It’s instead “faux Med,” as she put it.
“The developers get credit for having a little fountain out front, so they just plunk it down. We start losing that authenticity,” Carbonell said. “Coral Gables is not the sleepy town it used to be. It’s lost that pleasurable feeling. It’s very dense. Parking is an issue. Getting around has become complicated. Miracle Mile has changed. You feel it as you go about your day. I know we can’t just live in the past. But it has not been well curated.”
Architect Jose Gelabert-Navia, who helped write the original city ordinance providing the zoning bonus for Mediterranean architecture, says it’s often been misused. The rules were meant to encourage architectural variety by allowing modern design that incorporates Mediterranean features such as arcades, colonnades, plazas and balconies, he said.
But, he told a full house during a lecture at the Coral Gables Museum last month on the design of cities through the centuries, the city has mostly succeeded in its quest to build on Merrick’s “unique” vision.
“The plan is there, and for the most part it survives,” Gelabert-Navia said. “I think the city is getting better and better.”