Coral Gables

In Coral Gables, a plan for Mediterranean towers and pedestrian paseo draws cheers, jeers

A rendering of the proposed Paseo de la Riviera project as seen from Jaycee Park.
A rendering of the proposed Paseo de la Riviera project as seen from Jaycee Park.

On the stretch of South Dixie Highway that bisects Coral Gables, a car-choked legacy of 1950s strip-mall zoning that’s more Sprawl City than City Beautiful, a developer’s proposal for something better and more Gables-like — but also a lot bigger — has poked a hornet’s nest that’s about to envelop City Hall.

The developer, Brent Reynolds of NP International, bought the tired old Holiday Inn across South Dixie from the University of Miami, and he wants to replace it with a Mediterranean-style complex of two 140-foot towers — one a hotel, the other apartments — set around a cafe-lined public plaza that would connect through an archway to a shady city park behind it, and beyond that to a tree-shrouded single-family neighborhood.

To its proponents, supporters and city planners, the plan for Paseo de la Riviera could set a new template for the gradual transformation of South Dixie into a place more befitting Coral Gables — gracious, architecturally distinctive and far more inviting to people on foot.

With construction now begun on a nearby pedestrian bridge across the highway, they say, the Paseo could also help knit together the neighborhoods behind it with the university and its Metrorail station, long separated by the moat of rushing U.S. 1 traffic, and thus foster use of public transit, walking and — if ambitious plans to transform the underused M-Path beneath the elevated tracks into a park-like bikeway bear fruit — bike commuting, too.

But there’s a rub. The Paseo plan would require substantially more density and height than current rules allow on the site. Though it has received vocal support from some neighbors, it’s been met by fierce, even angry resistance from others, including leaders of the Riviera Neighborhood Association.

To its critics, the Paseo towers would loom intrusively over Jaycee Park and the surrounding neighborhood, dump scores of cars onto overloaded South Dixie, and send a stream of users and visitors searching for parking and shortcuts through nearby residential streets. They contend the towers would repeat a mistake from the past, matching the height of the much-loathed Gables One Tower, a slab-like office building next door that’s now owned by the University of Miami and whose construction decades ago later prompted the city to limit height on the Holiday Inn site to roughly seven stories.

If Paseo is approved, Riviera association president Patrick Nolan said, other developers will follow suit nearby, seeking to rezone low-scale strip malls and commercial buildings to create “a concrete jungle” along South Dixie.

“This is a quality-of-life issue,” Nolan said, pointing out that many homes in the neighborhood are worth over $1 million and that the proposal seeks to double the building square footage allowed on the motel lot. “It’s just too much density. Do we need shopping malls with a big parking lot in the front on U.S. 1? Maybe not. But does it have to be a 150-foot building? There’s got to be a way to have a nice project there that’s more in tune with the values and style of the neighborhood.”

Nolan also says he’s skeptical that any of his affluent neighbors would walk or bike to the Metrorail to hop on a train. “This is not a neighborhood that’s going to embrace that,” he said.

But some opponents don’t stop there. In public meetings and in interviews, the most vehement critics have denounced the developer as a “money-bags,” called for the head of the city’s planning director, and claimed, with no evidence, that UM is secretly pushing for the project’s approval because it wants a high-class “dorm” for its students — something the university and the developer flatly deny.

Mendi Fellig, a rabbi who welcomes the project and lives with his family in a two-story duplex across a narrow street behind the Holiday Inn, says some residents simply don’t want to see changes in the neighborhood. He thinks the Paseo would be a marked improvement over the “unattractive” motel.

“The design is beautiful. The location makes sense,” he said of Paseo. “It’s on a major thoroughfare, across from the Metro. If offers something for everybody. You could stroll over in the evening to the restaurants and sit outdoors. There’s really nothing like this in this area. It’s the kind of project that belongs here.”

The question will come to a head Thursday at a special meeting of the Gables commission. That follows a five-hour, sometimes emotional hearing before the city’s planning board that delivered a mixed verdict on the plan, with enough members objecting to some of the sought-for rules changes out of concern over the Paseo scale to constitute a no-recommendation vote on two of the four items. The other two items received thumbs-up from a board majority.

The project comes to a wary commission amid a wave of high-density projects proposed for a broad swath of central Coral Gables that has stirred significant public discontent. Earlier this month, Gables commission newcomer Jeannett Slesnick convened a town-hall meeting on development that packed a huge ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel with mostly unhappy Gables residents, including a tableful of Paseo critics.

City officials have responded by trying to encourage denser, mixed-use development in commercial areas to promote the walkability and urban amenities that are increasingly prized today, even as they attempt to safeguard the Gables’ reputation for strict zoning and careful planning.

Nearly everyone agrees that the car-centric development that dominates the east side of the U.S. 1 corridor is antiquated, forcing people into cars for even short errands and making it nearly impossible, not to mention unsafe, to walk along it or attempt to cross on foot. Many of the commercially zoned lots are underbuilt, with lots of asphalt parking, making them primed for redevelopment.

The question is, what shape will that take? The Paseo proposal prompted city planners to embark on a broader look at the corridor, but so far it’s produced only a report recommending development of special zoning for denser projects at transit stations and further study. In the meantime, city officials say, they’re obligated to review and vote on the Paseo application even in the absence of a broader blueprint for the area.

City planners did conclude the Paseo plan accomplishes many of their goals by significantly widening sidewalks, shading them with arcades, providing a broad plaza for public use, redesigning surrounding streets to be more pedestrian-friendly and delivering more potential users to the foot of a major transit station.

But they also echo residents’ concerns over scale, up to a point. Gables planning chief Ramon Trias is recommending a reduction in the height of the towers to 120 feet, with the complex’s base stepping down to no more than 45 feet at the rear, where it faces a block of duplexes and low apartment buildings across a narrow street. Trias also wants to study traffic in the neighborhood for five years after completion of the project, and to impose any needed improvements at the developer’s expense.

Reynolds said Tuesday he’s studying Trias’ conditions. He’s also noted in interviews and public statements that he’s already knocked one and a half stories off the initial design and completely rewritten the traffic-management plan after meeting with neighbors — something association members acknowledge. Under that plan, all building users and visitors in cars can exit on U.S. 1 only, and residents would enter on the street behind, meaning there is little reason for anyone to traverse the neighborhood, Reynolds said.

Some opponents’ traffic concerns seem overstated. They say the neighborhood is already afflicted by cut-through traffic at rush hour and can’t absorb more. But a reporter who traversed it by car for 40 minutes at peak travel time on a recent morning saw mostly completely clear streets with the exception of one busy but not overwhelmed connector.

And while the Paseo and its archway are deliberately set at an angle to be an inviting and clearly visible presence from Jaycee Park, the motel site is separated from the single-family neighborhood both by the block-long park and a long block of duplexes and apartment buildings. From the first street of single-family homes beyond the park, the top of the Gables One tower is barely discernible over the thick treetops and house rooftops, suggesting the Paseo towers might also have little visual impact.

Reynolds also argues that the Paseo design, by noted Gables architect Jorge Hernandez, also responsible for the Coral Gables Museum’s new wing, would mask the Gables One tower and enhance the neighborhood by providing it an alluring centerpiece.

“What you have now is a barrier,” he said. “That feeling of Coral Gables is missing.”

The Coral Gables City Commission is holding a special hearing on the Paseo de la Riviera proposal at 9 a.m. Thursday at City Hall, 405 Biltmore Way.