Until now, Coral Gables — unflashy, uncool, a Mediterranean-themed bastion of affluent suburban stolidity — seemed a bulwark against the wave of redevelopment that’s swept through neighboring Miami and Miami Beach, turning derelict areas from South Beach to Brickell and Midtown into dense urban enclaves a-glitter with the young and hip.
Not that anyone in the City Beautiful was complaining. And not that there wasn’t the occasional big new residential and commercial project downtown, or some hot restaurants opening amid the bridal shops, to enliven the worn sidewalks of Miracle Mile, its once-sleepy main street. But wander a couple of blocks off the Mile, especially after office hours, and the Gables still seems more City Quiescent than City Beautiful.
That may be about to change.
An avalanche of high-density projects, some with towers pushing up against the limits of the city’s famously stringent zoning rules, could reshape the landscape of central Coral Gables, filling in its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods with new hotels, hundreds of condo and apartment units, and an array of office, restaurant and retail space that measures out in the hundreds of thousands of square feet.
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The roster of projects, many approved and some already under construction, has stirred impassioned debate among Gables residents and elected officials.
Some fear the surge imperils the city’s proud tradition of meticulous planning and tightly controlled development — a regime well known for regulating construction down to the color you may paint your house. Others say it will bring welcome growth and rejuvenation while hewing to city father George Merrick’s picturesque vision of a subtropical Mediterranean Eden, thanks to those strict rules and a series of planning and quality-of-life initiatives by the city that include a total makeover of Miracle Mile.
One thing’s for sure: This is not your grandfather’s Coral Gables.
Earlier this month, after three years of intensive review and revision, Gables commissioners approved the biggest single development in the city’s 90-year history — the Mediterranean Village at Ponce Circle, comprising more than one million square feet of hotel, condos and shopping layered into 6.7 acres of long-vacant land three blocks south of the Mile on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
In embracing the project blueprint, which contains nearly as much retail space as exists along the entire Mile, commissioners broke with longstanding Coral Gables practice: They allowed a significant markup in density even after trimming the project’s size. And, by a narrow 3-2 vote, they approved a controversial restaurant above the hotel tower’s 19th floor, up to now the strict cap for habitable space in the city. Only the cupula above the city’s fabled Biltmore Hotel will top the tip of the Mediterranean Village’s 297-foot-high spire, and just by a couple of feet.
That’s hardly the end of it. Some 16 projects of substantial size are in the city development pipeline. They range from an outpost of the budget-friendly, youth-oriented Aloft Hotel chain now under construction on busy Le Jeune Road to a proposed 16-story residential tower, 33 Alhambra, that would occupy most of a city block behind Coral Gables Elementary School, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Gables Mayor Jim Cason acknowledges that’s quite a bit for a city of 50,000 that he says had seen just 13 major new developments since 1999. But he’s not sure all the contemplated projects will actually get built or go as big as proposed. Speculators and inexperienced developers often give up when they run into the first critical design review from the city, he said.
“There’s lots of people who say they want to build in Coral Gables,” Cason said. “People say the tall buildings are coming. Well, maybe, maybe not.”
It’s not just tall buildings, though. Developers have filed applications for more than half a dozen infill residential projects, mostly rowhouses and small apartment buildings, that would replace modest and sometimes rundown duplexes and apartments dotting neighborhoods west of downtown.
The wave extends to the old industrial section surrounding the upscale, 13-year-old Village of Merrick Park shopping mall, an area south of downtown that’s being gradually transformed into a high-density mixed-use district. Ugo Colombo, owner of The Collection auto dealership on Bird Road, purchased the adjoining block and, with developer Shoma, recently won approval for the Collection Residences, a 10-story building with 270 luxury condos and 40,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. That’s just one of six large projects approved or proposed for the district.
Developers are even looking to build tall on South Dixie Highway, the strip-mall-dominated corridor that bisects Coral Gables. A contentious proposal to replace the old Holiday Inn across from the University of Miami with two towers, a 13-story residential building and a 10-story hotel, has divided residents of the single-family neighborhood behind it. The project would feature shops and restaurants on the ground floor and a pedestrian passage connecting to the adjoining neighborhood.
City officials insist they’re equal to the challenge.
They’ve put the brakes to the Holiday Inn project while they study its impact and develop a broader vision for the Dixie corridor — one of two such planning efforts now underway.
“We’re not going to allow anything to get out of hand.” Cason said. “We want to preserve Merrick’s vision. There’s always people who want to build more than we want. But we’re never going to be Brickell. We don’t allow buildings that tall.”
But the stream of plans has strained the resources of the city’s small planning department and raised concern among some residents over the ability and willingness of administrators and elected officials to protect Coral Gables’ historic scale, look and feel. Many also worry about the impact on traffic, which already becomes congested at peak times.
Downtown Coral Gables, a regional corporate and employment center that attracts tens of thousands of commuters, is certainly no stranger to height or density. Most developers working there today already take advantage of zoning bonuses that allow them to build bigger if they adopt the city’s trademark Mediterranean look.
But, like the approved Mediterranean Village, many of the proposed new developments result from big lot assemblages and may require rezonings, variances or special large-area plans that strike some as more go-go Miami than conservative Coral Gables.
Critics say it would be unwise for the city to stray from the plan Merrick developed in the 1920s. The city founder adopted the tenets of the late-19th Century City Beautiful movement, which sought to bring elegance to gritty American cities by erecting grand civic buildings in a garden-like setting of squares, fountains, boulevards and plazas — a template Gables leaders have mostly preserved and enhanced in the decades since.
“The people who want to come in and get exemptions ought to be building according to our code,” resident Jim Hartnett told city commissioners as they debated the Mediterranean Village plan. “Sooner or later, it will not be Coral Gables, the City Beautiful, but Coral Gables, the city of concrete.”
Recently installed Gables commissioner Jeanett Slesnick, who ran on a slow-growth platform, contends the city had become too lenient in granting what she called “spot zoning” to developers seeking to supersize projects.
“It’s why I ran for office,” said Slesnick, whose husband, Don Slesnick, preceded Cason as mayor. “I got angry that this was happening in my town. I want people to take a second look at what they’re doing. You have to have some change. But you need quality change, change that reflects the community.”
The development pressure on the Gables, developers and city officials say, results from spillover from Miami’s real-estate boom and a pent-up appetite among Millenials and empty-nesters for urban-style living in the suburbs. The central Gables, with its urban grid layout, a burgeoning dining and cultural scene, stable governance and a well-to-do population, but also antiquated, non-historic commercial buildings on small lots, is a natural draw for redevelopment, they say.
To be sure, nothing in the Gables development pipeline approaches the scale of the newest mega-block skyscrapers in Miami. But dense Miami-style development has been creeping up to the Gables border at both Bird Road and Coral Way, where the municipal dividing line runs along or close to Douglas Road.
“The whole market is hyperactive,” said veteran developer Armando Codina, who has built several mixed-use buildings in the Gables in past years and has started construction on his newest, a 16-story residential building with a companion four-story office building, on an acre and a half at 2020 Salzedo Street. “What is happening on the edge of the Gables is intense. What’s happening inside the Gables is a consequence of that.”
Codina, who stressed that he has never asked for a variance from the Gables’ height cap, said he believes the city’s code for downtown has it about right, encouraging an urbane and consistent scale of development.
“I think we have the right scale,” he said of his new buildings, which will be separated by a broad, public interior courtyard for dining and lingering. “It’s a very human scale. It’s a Coral Gables scale. I like their code. I like their controls. I know someone’s not going to come and build something crappy next to me.”
City commissioners and planners have been at pains to stress that the Mediterranean Village, which supplants a never-completed Spanish Village development, presented unique circumstances because of its size, and set no legal precedents for other developers. They note the city stood its ground when the Mediterranean Village developer, Agave Ponce, an offshoot of the Mexican family that controls the Cuervo brand of tequila, initially filed plans that many thought too big and mall-like.
Planners and elected officials got Agave to scrub more than 100,000 square feet from the project, including an entire residential tower, a gym and a cinema, which the city said would have cast a shadow over a single-family neighborhood to the east and overwhelmed an important historic building that’s to be incorporated into the village. Agave also reshaped the village to put pedestrian-friendly street-level retail and a pedestrian-only “paseo” entrance on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
The result, the city says, is an urbanistically cohesive, well-designed set of buildings and public plazas and streets that will bring fresh commercial and pedestrian life to what’s been a dead zone for too long.
“That took three years and the developer was not happy, but that’s what it takes,” said Ramon Trias, the city planning director. “Every step of the way, it got better.”
City planners have also scrambled to get ahead of the development wave, embarking on rapid studies of two broad areas of the city where development pressure is building — the South Dixie corridor and North Ponce, the mostly low-scale residential neighborhood that extends north from Alhambra Circle downtown to Southwest Eighth Street along Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
In North Ponce — a hodge-podge of historic apartment houses and nondescript buildings edging up to more-recently built residential towers on Ponce — the goal is to develop rules for congenial new development that preserves and enhances its urban-village texture and economic diversity, city planners and consultants say. No fewer than nine projects have been proposed for the North Ponce area, one of the few relatively affordable neighborhoods in the Gables.
“We will set the parameters as to what we accept and what we want up there,” Cason said. “We don’t want spot zoning.”
On South Dixie, where Merrick’s zoning was changed in the 1940s to accommodate auto-oriented strip development, the idea is to set the table for a gradual transformation of what’s now a funnel for cars into a more walkable, Gables-like boulevard — perhaps by returning to Merrick’s original conception, which Gables planning director Trias says called for tall buildings. On the west side, the city is actively supporting plans for the Underline, a contemplated bikeway and linear park that would replace the bare-bones path beneath the elevated Metrorail line.
At the same time, the city will soon break ground on a long-contemplated, $20 million streetscape makeover of Miracle Mile and neighboring Giralda Avenue, the popular but faded block-long restaurant row, that’s designed to beautify and make both much more welcoming for pedestrians.
Now in the last stages of planning and design, the project will expand the width of sidewalks along the Mile to 23 feet, from the current 15 1/2 feet, to accommodate pedestrians, outdoor cafes and a dense thicket of shade trees, all by slightly narrowing auto travel lanes and supplanting angled street parking with parallel parking, a controversial idea that will eliminate numerous spots.
The restaurant row, meanwhile, would be rebuilt in a curbless European design so it can better accommodate events like the popular Giralda Under the Stars, a seasonal monthly event in which restaurants set up tables in the street. Retractable bollards would make it easy to close the street for such special events.
The draft plans for both streets, by noted New York firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners, feature artsy design elements — pavers tinted to resemble clouds and blue sky on the Mile and, on Giralda, a street design consisting of concentric circles that resemble ripples in a puddle, and above it, suspended LED lights shaped like raindrops. Thick copses of trees at either end of Giralda will create romantic, formal entranceways.
A related city project would replace the two big obsolete parking garages on Valencia Avenue, just behind Miracle Mile, that create a dead zone for pedestrians. The city is looking for developers to build a total of about 500 parking spaces within architecturally fitting, sidewalk-friendly building envelopes, and with some mix of uses, possibly including condos or apartments.
Merchants and property owners on the Mile say the streetscape improvements are long overdue, pointing to its stained, uneven sidewalks, cracked paving tiles, patches of bare dirt in open tree pits and the non-functional historic fountains at either end of the street.
They say the Mile needs to regain its luster if downtown Coral Gables is to hold its place in the increasingly competitive urban ecology of Miami-Dade, where new and resurgent neighborhoods like Midtown Miami, Wynwood, the Design District and even adjacent South Miami’s downtown are drawing away well-to-do shoppers, diners and residents by amping up the pedestrian, dining and shopping ambience.
“Miracle Mile is the absolute face of the city,” said Stephen Bittell, chairman of Terranova Corp., a real estate firm heavily involved in the revitalization of Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach that now owns multiple buildings on the Mile. “It just needs to reclaim its glory and kind of go back to the future. To do that you gotta bring people to the street. That turns on everything else there.”
Bringing people to the street, in fact, aptly sums up the city’s development strategy and its response to the traffic issue. Mixing condos and apartments with offices, shopping and dining, attracts young professionals to boost commerce and helps keep a lid on auto traffic, officials say.
“They can live near where they work and walk and bike,” Cason said.
The city is also installing new bike lanes routes and expanding its popular trolley-bus system. Under the Mediterranean Village approval, Agave will put up $37 million towards neighborhood and street improvements and for expansion of trolley service. The developer will spend $1.3 million to buy four new trolleys and $626,000 annually for 25 years towards operations. The city also required Agave to incorporate significant bike-parking facilities and showers for bike commuters.
Such meticulously planned projects, supporters say, distinguish development in the Gables. The Mediterranean Village faced little resistance in the end because neighbors and Miracle Mile merchants and property owners, initially wary of its impact on homes and businesses, were won over by its benefits, noted Agave’s land-use lawyer. Marcio Garcia-Serra.
“At one point people were very resistant to change, but that’s changed. They see that development done the right way can lead to benefits for their daily lives, such as a more walkable city,” he said.
Cason said he intends to ensure that review of forthcoming projects will be exacting.
“We want to preserve the great things in Coral Gables, and that means controlling what goes on downtown and in the residential neighborhoods,” he said, before adding with a laugh: “No purple houses.”