Coral Gables

Coral Gables Commission candidates argue about development, street lights, taxes

Both candidates battling for Coral Gables’ Group 4 commission seat challenged each other Monday night during a debate hosted by the Coral Gables Forum.

Incumbent Frank Quesada faced newcomer Enrique Lopez at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, where residents asked the commission hopefuls questions about issues in the community.

Concerns were similar to those raised at two previous forums featuring two mayoral candidates and six commission candidates running for another open seat: development, debt and police. Eliott Rodriguez of CBS 4 moderated all three debates.

The Mediterranean Village project had both candidates on the edge of their seats.

Quesada said he supports the project as long as it doesn’t affect residential living.

Lopez said the project will no doubt affect residential living and that he does not support it.

If approved by the commission in the coming months, the project would be built on the former Old Spanish Village site on Ponce Circle.

The development would include a high-end hotel with 184 rooms; 314,000 square feet of office space; restaurants, retail establishments, a gym and multiplex cinema. Plans also include three residential towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses.

Street lights were also a hot topic. Lopez said he doesn’t want Coral Gables lighted “to look like Disney World.” Quesada said additional street lights would reduce crime.

In September, the city approved going 50/50 with property owners on and around Miracle Mile to fund the Miracle Mile Streetscape project, a development that city leaders hope will make it a lively, pedestrian-friendly area that attracts new and diverse businesses.

Quesada said that percentage should go down for businesses; Lopez said it shouldn’t come from property owners’ pockets at all and called it an “unfair business practice.”

The property owners in the Business Improvement District of Coral Gables will split their half, to be paid through a special assessment tax, depending on their location — 35 percent would be paid by properties directly on the Mile and Giralda, and 15 percent by adjacent properties.

The city agreed to pay interest for the first two years so that property owners won’t be assessed until construction ends and business speeds up again. Coral Gables is also looking into increasing parking-meter rates by up to 50 cents per hour to help reduce the fees paid by property owners for downtown parking.

Regarding city pensions, both candidates agreed that the plans need tweaking but offered no solutions.

“This is a can that continues to be kicked,” Lopez said.

Quesada disagreed.

“We have not kicked the can down the road,” he said, adding that the commission has made many tough pension decisions that cost money to “valuable employees.”

Both candidates agreed on the issue of Controlled Choice. Each said they believed in neighborhood schools and think the policy should be abolished. They also agreed that development needs to work hand-in-hand with traffic studies and must provide adequate parking.

They also discussed the importance of hiring more police officers and making interim Police Chief Ed Hudak the permanent boss.

Lopez said commission officials make a difference. “Yes, we have the right players, but our police department is only as good as the city government,” he said.

Also at the debate, residents questioned Lopez about his role at Dade Medical College, an institution whose owner Ernesto Perez was investigated by the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Lopez was formerly the academic dean for the college’s online program.

He told the audience he had “nothing to hide” and has not been involved in any ethics violations. He later said that his opponent, Quesada, who is a lawyer, has represented the college and affiliates in the past.

In September, Perez agreed to pay $2,000 to the Miami-Dade ethics commission — part of a settlement agreement over accusations that Perez personally engaged in improper lobbying. He admitted no wrongdoing.

The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce will have a marathon candidates’ forum on March 31 at the University of Miami Fieldhouse, 1245 Dauer Dr., adjacent to Bank United Center in the breezeway directly across from the Hurricane 100 Room.

Doors open at 5:30 with the Group 4 debate at 6 p.m., followed by Group 5 and ending with the mayoral candidates. It will end at 9 p.m.

The forum will be the last before the April 14 election. Those who want to attend are asked to RSVP online at coralgableschamber.org.

Follow @MoniqueOMadanMH on Facebook; @MoniqueOMadan on Twitter.

This article was updated on March 31, 2015, to indicate that Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez, not the college itself, was investigated by the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

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