Coral Gables

In Coral Gables, another 1920s building may be torn down, sparking outcry

One year after Coral Gables let one of its oldest downtown buildings be razed, the city has paved the way for another century-old building in the Gables to be bulldozed.

The city’s Historic Preservation Board — responsible for deciding which of the Gables’ early- and mid-century structures should be protected as developers vie for coveted real estate — voted 5-3 on Aug. 15 to deny the apartment building at 333 Catalonia Ave. historical status. The decision puts what some say is the last Mission Revival structure in the city at risk, though no demolition permits had been filed as of Friday, according to the city.

Like last year’s Board vote against preserving LaSalle Cleaners in downtown Gables, the Board’s decision on the structure off Le Jeune Road went against city staff’s recommendation to protect the building, sparking community outcry.

Built in 1926, the tile-roofed building, with its upstairs balcony, casement windows and arched portico, contains four affordable housing units in a district zoned for single-family residences. Advocates say it must stay lest the City Beautiful betray the vision of its founder, George Merrick.

Critics question the legitimacy of the building’s Mission Revival style and whether it truly fits into the Crafts Section of the Gables, where it is located.

“The vision of the [Crafts] section never came into fruition,” said Historic Preservation Board member Alicia Bache-Wiig at the meeting. “You have a disjuncture where you have a nonconforming use in a single-family neighborhood, and those two things don’t work.”

Merrick initially intended the Crafts section of Coral Gables to be a work-live space for artisans and crafts people, the city’s historic preservation department said in its report, and the building at 333 Catalonia is part of his initial building campaign in this direction. Though the Crafts section never fulfilled his vision, the intact structure is a “testament” to his “dedication to providing affordable housing,” the report said.

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In the 24-page report, city staff detail how the building fits three criteria for historical designation. To receive designation, the building has to meet only one.

“There are apartment buildings in single-family homes all over,” Dona Spain, director of the city’s Historical Resources & Cultural Arts Department, who signed off on the report, said at the Aug. 15 meeting. “If we were to take what [Bache-Wiig is] saying and apply it to everything, the Biltmore Hotel would not exist.”

The report cites the building’s architectural, historical and cultural significance as reasons for its historical significance, noting the apartment building has had few vacancies and minimal alterations.

The Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, a nonprofit advocacy group, says the building is the only known Mission Revival structure in the city.

The building’s owner, the Southeastern Investment Group, opposes the designation. Representatives from the Historic Preservation Board questioned at their August meeting whether Mission Revival style was ever part of Merrick’s vision, and argued that 333 Catalonia does not conform to Mission Revival.

For preservation advocates, the board’s LaSalle decision was a turning point in how the city handled historic properties. Catalonia only confirms their fears that the Historic Preservation Board will allow Coral Gables to be gentrified.

“We always call it before LaSalle and after LaSalle,” said Karelina Carbonell, president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables. “We are losing our historic integrity, one building at a time.”

Don Queralto, who lives two blocks from the building, is leading the effort to appeal the Board’s decision.

The city commission would have three options when considering an appeal: Vote on whether to kick the discussion back to the Preservation Board, agree with the board’s decision, or overrule it entirely.

Queralto said he is going door-to-door to get signatures, and he gathered 30 as of Thursday afternoon. He said he will bring his case to the Sept. 3 commission meeting.

With LaSalle, efforts from the Historic Preservation Association led the city commission to pass resolutions helping to walk back plans to replace the dry cleaners with a parking lot. Vice Mayor Vince Lago said he didn’t want a bill moving for demolition “with his fingerprints on it.”

It’s unclear what might replace 333 Catalonia if it were to be torn down. Since it is located in a single-family zoning district, developers’ options are limited — but a multi-unit affordable housing complex would not be among them.

“They’ll go in and replace it with something more modern,” Queralto said. “We’re hoping we can reverse this decision.”