An endangered 1923 Mediterranean building that prompted a fierce brouhaha over historic preservation in Coral Gables got a fresh chance at survival on Tuesday, when city commissioners unanimously reversed a decision to turn it into a parking lot.
But the reprieve for the LaSalle Cleaners building, one of the oldest standing structures in preservation-minded Coral Gables, could be short-lived.
The commission is legally powerless to declare the building historic or bar demolition because the city's preservation board voted last year not to declare it a protected landmark, Gables city attorney Miriam Soler Ramos told commissioners during a hearing.
That meant all the commission could do was rescind its approval of an agreement to lease the building from its owner, Mirelle LaSalle, for use as a parking lot. The agreement required the owner to demolish the building, the only one of nine original buildings in the city's business district still standing.
The commission on Tuesday also passed a second resolution instructing city administrators to negotiate with LaSalle to try to save the building. That could entail leasing the building for city use, purchasing it or helping LaSalle restore or sell it to someone who would.
"I feel that I made an error," said Commissioner Vince Lago, who had voted in favor of the lease agreement earlier this year but reconsidered after preservationists mounted a last-ditch campaign to save the building. "I don’t want my fingerprints on a resolution that could lead to demolition."
Soler Ramos stressed that nothing bars LaSalle from applying for and receiving a demolition permit. But an attorney for LaSalle, who was not at the hearing, said she is willing to entertain proposals from the city.
"We don’t have any right to require this property owner to do anything," acknowledged Commissioner Michael Mena, who along with Lago asked the commission to reconsider the parking-lot lease. "All we can do is engage in a good-faith effort to discuss this with the owners. At the end of the day it’s going to be the owners' decision."
One possibility: using a city program that allows owners of historic buildings to sell lucrative "air rights" to developers who can then build extra square footage elsewhere in the city. That suggestion came from historian and preservationist Arva Moore Parks, author of a recent biography of Coral Gables founder George Merrick, To qualify, though, the LaSalle building would have to be declared historic.
Parks noted that Merrick moved his construction office into the building in 1923, before the city was incorporated.
"It’s a miracle it’s still intact," Parks said. "There is only one first in anyone’s city."
Coral Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, who had represented a potential buyer for the LaSalle property before being elected last year, also reversed course and voted with the majority to rescind the lease agreement. Soler Ramos said the mayor had no conflict because the sale did not go through and he is no longer representing the buyer, a developer who wanted to build a hotel on the site.
The building at issue was originally a gas station at a long-gone formal city entrance, then was expanded the following year with a two-story addition housing apartments and offices. It was home to LaSalle Cleaners for more than 70 years, but the business — which is owned independently — moved across the street earlier this year.
The building stands on a prominent corner on LeJeune Road across from Coral Gables City Hall, where a statue of Merrick looks out from the lawn.
The city's preservation office concluded last year that the building strongly merited historic designation, noting in a 42-page report that most of its original architecture survives behind superficial alterations that could easily be removed. But a preservation board majority disagreed, saying the exterior alterations stripped the building of historic value.
Preservationists only recently learned of the parking-lot agreement and the preservation board vote, but by then the time for appealing the preservation board's decision had elapsed.
Instead, the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables mounted a last-minute social-media campaign to persuade commissioners of the building's historic value.