Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider
A recent Sunshine meeting, convened on November 30, 2023, by Commissioner Kirk Menendez and the City Commission, sparked a lively debate over a new proposed zoning program aimed at enhancing open space within the city’s Central Business District. This area, a vital part of Downtown Coral Gables, finds itself at the center of a controversy that balances urban development with communal needs.
Put simply, the program proposes a trade-off: developers can increase building heights by about two stories in the redevelopment of existing midsize structures or new sites, raising the maximum height from about 8 to possibly 10 stories. In return, they must allocate about 15% of the lot area to green space, supplementing the existing 10% requirement. According to the City Planner, this could lead to a significant 25% green space designation for redeveloped sites. The initiative dovetails with the Mediterranean bonus incentive, the natural scaling of architectural features that do not count towards height requirements, and the potential for purchasing Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs), possibly leading to a very tall “midsize” building and aims to address the scarcity of green areas in an increasingly urbanized downtown.
Commissioner Menendez champions a citizen-focused approach, engaging in a listening tour of resident concerns. His expressed goal is to avoid the “Brickelling” of Downtown Coral Gables. The Commission emphasized the need for more green areas, viewing the initiative as a crucial step in aligning urban growth with environmental sustainability.
The program, however, has its critics. Some fear it may become an overused tool that grants disproportionate rights to developers without delivering significant public benefits. These concerns center on the potential imbalance between the added building height and the actual green space provided. Skeptics worry that the increased density could strain city infrastructure and diminish the quality of life, citing the potential for more massive structures and reduced open areas for residents. Doubters argue that this could lead to an imbalance, where the densification of the cityscape might overshadow the intended public benefits of additional open spaces.
The discourse has also highlighted a divide in understanding the complexities of zoning laws. Vice Mayor Anderson, a supporter of the effort, in particular, has been vocal in her critique of residents’ grasp of these complexities, a stance that has been perceived by some as dismissive and argumentative to common worries of the citizenry.
Nonetheless, Commissioner Menendez makes a compelling point in this debate. He argues that, given the escalating costs of land and the extensive development rights previously granted, developers currently lack the incentive to voluntarily expand green spaces. Menendez suggests that without some form of encouragement or benefit— a ‘carrot’ to entice them—developers are unlikely to choose a route that prioritizes open space in their projects, leading to more potentially boxy Soviet urbanization.
The Commission faces a challenging decision: balancing the need for urban development with the preservation of green spaces. While the program’s supporters underscore its potential to transform and rejuvenate the city’s landscape, critics caution against unintended consequences that could alter the city’s character.
This controversy is more than a mere zoning issue; it reflects a broader dialogue about the future of urban living. It’s a test case for how cities like Coral Gables can grow responsibly while remaining true to their community’s values and needs. As the commission and residents weigh the pros and cons, the outcome of this decision will likely have lasting implications for the city’s development trajectory and its commitment to balancing growth with quality of life.