Owners worry Coral Gables street construction will continue to hurt their businesses
For more than a year, bulldozers, cement trucks and construction workers have been as common on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables as bridal stores and coffee shops.
Customers make their way along still-barricaded streets and narrow sidewalks as workers continue to pour concrete and cut tiles. Weary merchants along the Mile and Giralda Avenue thought the ongoing work would be completed by now and are still losing business — more than $1 million this year in some cases — or struggling to make up for lost profits.
City leaders have previously threatened legal action against Ric-Man International, the construction firm handling the project, but now seem content with just pushing forward to finish the delayed project. City staff says they hope to be close to the original completion date of August 2017, but estimates say the work will actually wrap up in January.
The impact has been felt everywhere, from mom-and-pop stores to popular restaurants, and merchants wonder why the city allowed things to get so bad and hold out hope for new business when the work is finally done.
“To me this is Shakespearean, it’s a tragedy, because it was never supposed to be this way,” said Wayne Eldred, the owner and operator of Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill.
Eldred, a former chairman of the city’s chamber of commerce, has been involved with the project’s planning from early on and described himself as a “cheerleader” for the streetscape work. He said he recognized the difficulty of executing the project but thinks that there could have been smarter steps taken to deal with delays.
“You’ve had years to plan this thing and you don’t have things lined up and staged,” Eldred said. “If this city allows the Ric-Man group to do business in this town again, that doesn’t say much about our city.”
He said that this year he’s had about $800,000 to $1 million in losses at his restaurant. About a month ago he had to consult his investors to keep the restaurant — known for its popular happy hour — from closing.
“The majority of this work was never supposed to hurt the businesses and it’s done exactly that,” Eldred said.
At least 10 businesses are vacant along the Mile and several merchants said that they’ve lost anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of their business, adding that the ongoing construction during last year’s usually busy holiday season was especially damaging.
When the work is completed on the Mile and Giralda the city hopes to see a fully realized modernized look for both streets with pedestrian-friendly design, walkable sidewalks, new lights and trees, and other amenities.
The angled parking on the street is being replaced with parallel parking and the wider sidewalks are meant to make room for outdoor seating and benches along the road. The plan also calls for a revamp of Giralda Avenue by closing the street to auto traffic and catering to pedestrians.
To me this is Shakespearean, it’s a tragedy, because it was never supposed to be this way.
Wayne Eldred, owner and operator of Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill
The work on Giralda is nearly done and on a recent afternoon there were still a few workers on the street cutting and setting tiles.
Assistant City Manager Peter Iglesias said that the only other work remaining on Giralda is installing hanging lights, and that the work on the south side of the Mile should also be completed soon.
On the northern side of the Mile, the westbound lane is closed as work has shifted to that side of the street.
And on the same blocks where city leaders toasted and celebrated the project’s progress there’s still work being done, and stretches of sidewalks are still blocked by barricades and caution tape.
“We wish it could be faster. I’m trying to get this thing going and not look back,” Iglesias said.
Ric-Man has said in the past that discrepancies in the project’s design, as prepared by architectural firm Cooper Robertson, were a factor in the delays and said the city had not responded to some requests for additional funding or information.
City officials previously said that Ric-Man should have identified the issues in the project’s design earlier as the company serves as both the project’s construction manager and the pre-construction service contractor.
Merchants have complained that on most days they don’t see workers and if they do, it’s a small number when compared with the scope of the project.
It’s an observation that’s been echoed by long-time merchants like Jeffrey Wolfe of Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe, who said that over the past year there has been some progress but not enough messaging that the street is still open.
Chef Cindy Hutson of Ortanique said that her restaurant has seen a slight boost from Miami Spice customers, but business is still down 50 percent. She hopes the city will use more signage to direct people.
“If you turn off LeJeune Road and look down it still looks like a construction zone,” Hutson said.
Iglesias said rain has also caused delays and compared the project to the ongoing streetscape work on Flagler Street in Miami.
“It’s always difficult when you’re working on these kinds of jobs because you can’t close everything down,” Iglesias said.
Some merchants say they’ve seen business pick up, but wish the initial roll-out of the project would have been smoother and that the city would have been clearer about delays and scheduling when issues emerged.
“Coral Gables is known for being tough on permitting and building. So to see how many mistakes have been made, when people should have been checking, is disheartening,” said Sara Zamikoff, owner of the clothing boutique Emporium.
She now tries to emphasize to her customers that there are nearby parking garages and encourages them to use services like the Freebee shuttle service.
The city’s Business Improvement District has also continued to plan concerts and events on the Mile and Giralda in an effort to draw new and old customers.
“We’re looking ahead to how we can get more foot traffic in the Gables. We know what situation we’re in but let’s make the best of it,” said Taciana Amador, the district’s executive director.
The city doesn’t plan to take any legal action against the construction management company or to terminate the contract. The city attorney’s office sent a letter on July 20 applauding Ric-Man for their “good-faith efforts” to speed up the work.
City Attorney Craig Leen said that if any action is taken it would be figuring out what money Ric-Man or the project’s design firm, Cooper Robertson, owes to the city.
“The focus for all three of us is to get this project finished. We’re going to meet after the project is completed to resolve any outstanding issues where the taxpayers will not have to bear any harm,” Leen said.
The issues and delays started early in the project’s lifespan.
The initial project manager, Victor Menocal, left Ric-Man a few weeks after construction began in July 2016. He was later replaced by a new manager, Guillermo Yunez, who immediately had to deal with unexpected drainage issues caused by bouts of heavy rain.
In December, the city threatened to declare a default in the contract, which could have ended with the contractor losing the job or a lawsuit from the city.
As work has progressed some merchants have seen business pick up, including some critics of the city’s response after last summer’s delays.
Eddie Snow of Snow’s Jewelers, a 43-year mainstay on the Mile, said that last summer was “terrible” but he thinks the work on the north side of the street is actually moving quicker than it did in front of his store.
“You compare it to a year ago, it’s like night and day. It’s almost daylight, we see the sun rising,” Snow said.
“If it wasn’t for our loyal customers, we’d be in trouble too.”