Coral Gables is at that proverbial crossroads, many of which are clogged with traffic, lined with buildings under construction — and the focus of a fierce election battle. Development — some would say overdevelopment — is the issue in the April 9 race for mayor.
But there are other challenges that voters should consider as they ponder the city’s future over the long term: fiscal stability, the quality of police and fire services, annexation.
Mayor Raúl Valdes-Fauli is seeking reelection. His opponent is well-known and successful Realtor Jeannett Slesnick. It’s their second face-off. They ran against each other in 2017, with Valdes-Fauli winning by 187 votes.
To say that many residents are angry at the dense, sky-blocking buildings in the City Beautiful, and the cranes in the air that promise more of the same, would be an understatement.
And they are taking aim at Valdes-Fauli, in particular, whom they blame for pushing development up to the edges of their leafy residential enclaves.
Slesnick says that she wants to tap the brakes on development. She says that when she sat on the commission, from 2015 to 2017, she voted against removing the height limit of four stories along U.S. 1 that allowed the multistory and controversial mixed-use Paseo to be built, a project that the Editorial Board supported. She says Valdes-Fauli is “pro-development.”
Valdes-Fauli says he is a proponent of “controlled, rational development.” He supports development along U.S. 1, which is not residential, and along major downtown corridors to get people out of their cars and walking, instead. He says that properties downtown account for at least 40 percent of the city’s tax base, which keeps homeowners’ property taxes low. He also wants to attract younger residents and visitors through mixed-used projects.
He’s right when he says that angry residents are blaming him for huge development projects for which he is not responsible. He first served as mayor from 1993-2001, during which he helped shepherd through Merrick Park shopping mall and a youth center. However, many of the projects under way were approved while he was not in office.
Some of residents’ ire misdirected, plus it doesn’t target the real source of what they say is the problem.
Unlike the city of Miami or Miami-Dade County, Coral Gables remains a weak-mayor form of government. The mayor is but one vote on the five-member commission, with no power of the veto.
Development, rezoning and changing needs have long occurred in the Gables. On U.S. 1, for instance, zoning rules were changed in the 1940s to allow strip development to accommodate auto traffic.
A mayor’s vote alone does not give developers the go-ahead. Instead, it will take a commission majority to tamp down on such growth. In addition, aggrieved residents will have to be more assertive in demanding zoning changes to what can be built.
We think that, overall, Valdes-Fauli has been good for the Gables. He, like Slesnick, backs annexation of an adjacent area of unincorporated Miami-Dade called Little Gables. Both see it as an opportunity to increase law enforcement there and, eventually, bring more-affordable housing into the city. The mayor sued FPL after Hurricane Irma in 2017, winning a ruling that said the utility, not the city, is responsible for keeping power lines free of trees. During his tenure, the city has put neighborhood safety officers, in golf carts, on the streets; installed CCTV and license-plate readers; and is working with the county to install automated traffic management systems.
In addition, a forward-looking Valdes-Fauli wants to examine the city’s canals, with an eye on installing a filtration system to keep pollution out of the bay.
However, the mayor — any mayor — sets the tone for how the Gables conducts business and treats its taxpayers. On that score, Valdes-Fauli has fallen short. He has failed to make a credible case to residents for his “rational” development vision, though he has one.
Instead, he continues to present an air of entitlement to this position, presuming, it seems — wrongly — that he doesn’t have to reach out, engage, explain, glad-hand or, most important, listen. It was off-putting in 2017, when we suggested that he “develop a more-human touch. People want to be heard,” and it’s off-putting now. His demeanor says he cares little about truly engaging the residents he wants to represent. On this score, the friendly, everywhere-at-once Slesnick gets it.
However, because of his generally responsible stewardship of the city, we recommend RAÚL VALDES-FAULI for Coral Gables mayor.
The mayoral race is not the only heated contest in Coral Gables.
An open seat in Group IV left by Commissioner Frank Quesada, who did not seek re-election, attracted four candidates: former Commissioner Ralph Cabrera, former Assistant City Manager Carmen Olazabal, attorney Jorge L. Fors Jr. and business activist and perennial candidate Jackson “Rip” Holmes.
In Group V, Commissioner Mike Mena has no opposition. His hefty campaign chest likely scared off challengers.
In Group IV, there is a highly contested race. Holmes is earnest in his concerns for the city. However, we find Cabrera, Olazabal and Fors the most likely to be seriously considered at the ballot box.
As in the mayor’s race, high-density development, unhappiness over recent mega-projects on U.S. 1, traffic and annexation dominate the contest.
All candidates recently met with the Editorial Board and conveyed that they brought solid knowledge of the city and what ails it. They all promised to be commissioners who will listen to the people, a trait that seems to be lacking among at least some on the dais.
Fors said he supports annexation, but thinks, “The quality of life is slipping away in the Gables,” he said. “Developers have been given free rein.” Fors has been dogged by an old incident that occurred while a student at the University of Florida. But he says he was only cited, not arrested, for drinking a beer. Still, troubling problems led to a do-over of his homestead exemption, initially filed on two properties, which is not allowed.
Olazabal, an engineer, said, “Recent developments have been out of scale,” adding that her 10 years in public service give her an edge over the other candidates. But she, too, has faced criticism for actions she took as assistant city manager without consulting the commission. She showed the Board paperwork indicating she did nothing wrong.
That leaves Cabrera, president of an insurance consulting firm, who has served the city in a number of important capacities, including on the Planning Board, Parks and Recreation and Board of Adjustment. He also served three consecutive terms as commissioner from 2001 to 2013. Although he is viewed as being pro-development, Cabrera says he is pro “smart development.” He says the solution to overdevelopment is already on the books: Force developers to abide the city’s master plan and code, with no exceptions. “We should not relax our code and we also need to stop building on U.S. 1,” he told the Board.
For his experience as a former commissioner, deep knowledge of the city and realistic view of development in Coral Gables, the Herald recommends RALPH CABRERA in Group IV for the Coral Gables Commission.