Hard to believe, but after two years of messy construction, street and sidewalk closures, contractor disputes, lost business and unfathomable delay, the ambitious Miracle Mile makeover is finished. Coral Gables' main drag, one of South Florida's signature shopping streets, is finally and fully open for business again.
Now comes the real test: Whether the $24 million that Gables taxpayers and downtown property owners invested in the design-heavy streetscape reconstruction will draw the promised crowds to revive the Mile, which had lost its shine amid cracked, worn sidewalks, lackluster shopping and stiff competition from other resurgent South Florida urban centers.
As the city and the downtown Gables business improvement district get ready to dedicate the new-look Mile with a sidewalk celebration on Saturday evening, it's much too early to predict success. But backers say so far, so good.
Miracle Mile's dramatically wider sidewalks and its fresh, modern look have already sparked renewed life along the street, they say — especially after dark and on weekends, when residents and visitors come to dine and then stroll around to check out the enhanced ambience. Some dining spots that have taken advantage of the extra space to add sidewalk cafe tables are seeing a clear uptick in business. So are merchants who say the redesign, completed in block-by-block phases, has brought increased foot traffic and made their storefronts more visible.
"It’s creative. It gets you looking and walking," said Jill Hornik, whose family owns the Mile's oldest retailer, Jae's Jewelers, and who also serves on the BID's board. "I think it will be lively day and night, on weekdays and on weekends."
Hornik said Mile merchants' fondest hope is to repeat the vibrant success of a companion project that turned adjacent Giralda Avenue, the city's once-faded restaurant row, into a tree-shaded, car-less plaza filled with restaurant and cafe tables. Because the one-block Giralda project was completed first, it's already had an extended test run. The Giralda Under the Stars event, which brings live music to the street once a month in winter, has attracted thousands to the transformed street.
Before the makeover, restaurants on Giralda struggled and some even closed. But dining business on the pedestrian street is already making a comeback. The former Scientology building, the city's early post office, is being restored to its historic look and will house several restaurants.
"I do see a change, no doubt about it," said Jorge Kuperman, an architect who backed the streetscape project and whose office is on Giralda Plaza. "I think in one year the place will be at its peak."
Leaders of the BID, which had long pushed for the Miracle Mile reconstruction as a way to reverse declining business along the main street, say they believe the same will happen there as people rediscover it.
"The result has been transformative," said Venny Torre, president of the independent, city-chartered agency. "The streets are getting fuller. There is a buzz. People want to see what this is all about. The openness of the whole Mile now — it’s a beautiful experience. It’s actually a new era here."
But skeptics contend the project wasn't worth the cost and consequences. Most businesses saw a sharp drop in revenue, and several well-established restaurants and shops went out of business during construction, which dragged on months longer than planned. The city blamed slow work by its contractor, though some critics also faulted the city's oversight.
Because of "unforeseen issues," the cost of the project rose from a budgeted $21.6 million to $24 million, a city spokeswoman said.
One longtime merchant, Miracle Mile Coin and Stamp Shop owner Pat Olive, said he's now looking to move off the Mile. Not only did lost revenue cause him to dip into savings to stay open, but the loss of street parking spots resulting from the city's decision to replace angled parking with parallel parking has also cost him business, Olive said.
"I'm not a restaurant. That's who benefits from the wider sidewalks," he said. Clients carrying valuable coins or stamps don't want to park in adjacent city garages. "Now the question is, how much longer am I going to dig? It doesn’t work for me."
Some residents have been underwhelmed by the new sidewalk design, which consists of white, gray and blue-hued granite paving stones arranged in patterns that the city-commissioned designer, the noted New York firm of Cooper, Robertson and Partners, said were meant to recall a cloud-daubed South Florida sky. But some find the speckled pattern drab or simply puzzling.
Others worry the light-colored stones will become stained, replicating one of the problems with the old sidewalks that the makeover was meant to eliminate. The city and its consultants have said the new material is of a high quality, durable and easy to maintain.
By contrast, a concentric-circle paving pattern on Giralda, also by Cooper, Robertson, has proven a hit. The design on both streets eliminated curbs to make the streets more friendly to pedestrians. When the Mile is closed for special events, such as the recent Carnival on the Mile festival, the curbless design makes for seamless walking.
The city and the BID say they're not counting just on bricks to bring the Mile back to its lost glory. Last year, the city hired a retail specialist to help coordinate a leasing strategy to lure diverse new businesses to the Mile, which at one point not long ago was known mainly as a place for brides to buy a wedding gown.
The BID is also helping restaurant owners navigate permit applications for more sidewalk cafe tables, which backers of the project see as a key benefit of the makeover. To date, just a handful of dining spots have done so, in part because that entails permit fees and regulations.
The city and BID also hope to capitalize on the downtown Gables' cultural institutions, including the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, and just a block off the Mile, the Coral Gables Museum and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. The district now also has three bookstores: independent Books & Books and chain store Barnes & Noble have been joined by Altamira Libros, a high-end Spanish-language shop on the Mile.
Now the BID wants to lure art galleries back. It's starting with several pop-ups in April, which has been dubbed Art Month. Two Art in Public Places projects will bring temporary installations to Giralda and the Mile consisting of, respectively, umbrellas and eight-foot-tall replicas of Venetian mooring poles created and painted by different artists.
With the Mile now finished except for some punch-list details, Torre said commercial brokers on the street are now fielding "lots" of inquiries from business owners interested in the refurbished strip. And while the loss of some businesses was unfortunate, he said, it was not unexpected.
"This was a major undertaking that created some challenges for people, especially businesses that may have already been struggling," Torre, a builder and developer, said. "But the end result is fabulous. It looks sharp. The potential now is incredible."
IF YOU GO
Coral Gables' Miracle Mile will host a public dedication celebration for its new streetscape from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. The Back to Beautiful event will feature live music, special sales, tasting stations and other activities. It will run along the full length of the street from Douglas to LeJeune roads.
A ribbon-cutting will precede the celebration at 5: 30 p.m. on the southeast corner of Miracle Mile and LeJeune Road.
The city will offer free parking at three nearby public garages from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Go to www.coralgables.com for more information.