Gondola Building Collapse A Sign Of Larger Issues

Ariel Fernandez

Founder & Editor
[email protected]


Courtesy of Wendy Cook

I will preface this article by stating that there have been welcomed changes at City Hall and a new focus over the last six months. The election of the new Mayor and Commissioners has placed staff on notice that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

However the collapse on Tuesday of the Gondola Building on the grounds of the Biltmore Hotel, is a concerning example of the hard and long work the Commission and residents have ahead, with the obvious disregard for safety and priorities by staff.

Following the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside in June, Gables Insider made a public record request for any inspections and/or maintenance issues that, at the time, needed to be addressed at any City owned facility or building. Documentation for structural concerns for only one building were received, the former Public Safety Building, which Gables Insider had reported earlier this year was also a project designed by the structural engineers responsible for Champlain Towers South. No reports or mentions of the Gondola Building were received from the City.

Gondola Building

The Gondola Building has sat on the Biltmore Golf Course in a dilapidated state for years. In 2019, as first reported by the Miami Herald, the City Commission passed a resolution allocating $500,000 for the restoration and repairs to the aging structure, with the goal of securing matching funds from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources.

Unfortunately, the City did not secure the funding.

Instead of using the $500,000 to begin work in the facility and secure the structure, staff did nothing for two years.

In August, the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables intervened and visited the site with the City’s Historical Resources & Cultural Arts Director and Commissioner Rhonda Anderson. The condition of the building was evident with vertical cracks going down the walls, interior light fixtures (which were on at the time) were laying on the ground, and debris could be seen inside. It was evident, the building was structurally unsound.

Staff promised to work on a plan to address the concerns visible at the meeting. Nothing was ever done.

The City would have fined any resident who had a building in this state on their property. However, it allowed for this building to sit crumbling on theirs for years.

The City administration acknowledges the condition of the building and is committing to work on a way forward. Sources tell Gables Insider that the City is committed to restoring the building.

“The building was uninhabited for decades and an unsafe structure which needed an investment of more than $1.5  to restore. Unfortunately, we were  unsuccessful in securing a matching grant from the State of Florida. We have secured the structure and are evaluating our path forward,” said Martha Pantin, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the City of Coral Gables.

Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel, along with the Gondola Building, are among the oldest buildings in the City of Coral Gables. Built in 1926, the construction took 10-months at a cost of $10 million ($156 million today). One of the main attractions from its early days was one of the largest swimming pools of its time. The pool would host large gatherings and aquatic competitions, which are said to have attracted thousands on Sunday afternoons.

Over 95 years later, the swimming pool still sits adjacent to the hotel, a City owned property.

Gables Insider inquired about the inspection reports for the Biltmore. None were available. We asked about studies or inspections of the foundation for the structure, as it sits adjacent to the large swimming pool. The City insisted none was necessary.

Tuesday’s collapse begs the question, is City staff is properly prepared to make these assessments?

And the fact is, this is not the only building with issues.

City Hall

Like the Biltmore, Coral Gables City Hall was also one of the City’s original buildings. It was built using coral rock, which went with the City’s name. However, coral rock works like a sponge and absorbs moisture. Structures built using coral rock are prone to water and moisture intrusion. City Hall is no exception.

Over the years, the building has been plagued with mold issues and caused members of staff health issues.

Since 2016 alone, the City has documented at least six instances of mold. No documentation was received about any water proofing of the building during that time. Are steps being taken to ensure the protection of residents and staff from toxic mold?

The answer we were able to produce is no. In fact, Gables Insider reported mold (see images) and moisture issues at City Hall this summer. To this day, the mold has not been remediated.

Mold remediation is a specialized profession. It requires confirming the type of mold in order to find the proper way to remove it. All drywall that has been touched by the mold must be removed or the mold will remain. It is a costly process, but if not addressed anyone breathing the air within the building could suffer from long-term effects.

Documentation secured by Gables Insider only shows that the City had an air conditioning repair company take a look at the area and assess that it was not mold. We have been unable to confirm any mold specialty by the air conditioning repair person.

The issue remains unaddressed.

Youth Center

The Youth Center is currently considered as part of the master plan the Commission will look at during the next Commission meeting in order to bring it to residents as a referendum item on the ballot in 2022.

For years, many residents and patrons of the Youth Center have talked about the City’s lack of maintenance at the building. The discussion now revolves around the need to replace the building, rather than renovate due to its condition and the cost of repairs. However, could it have been renovated if it had properly been maintained by the City Managers over the last 50 years?

To be clear, the issues cannot be blamed on one individual over the course of 95 years. They are aggregated due to the length of time that structures have been allowed to deteriorate.

Centennial

As we head to the City’s centennial celebration in 2025, the City looks to shine light on its landmarks. Steps are being taken to address some of the concerns. Just this past Commission meeting, the Commission approved a new City Board that will advise on the maintenance of our aging landmarks.

The Commission and residents have made their voices clear, preserving our City’s history is a priority. But as we have seen before, residents and the Commission can work together to address concerns, but it takes staff action to execute the plans.

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21 thoughts on “Gondola Building Collapse A Sign Of Larger Issues

  1. Typical of Coral Gables chasing and harassing residents to adhere to codes, regulations and rules the city itself (and often the employees personally) do not follow.
    Coral Gables or Little Cuba?

  2. How does this happen? The City Manager is supposed to be a Structural engineer.
    As Dora Beatty says, “the city does what it’s wants” the City did not even meet the green building code at the new public safety building.

  3. You need to ask for records called “New Needs Requests” by year so you can see what staff actually requests versus what is actually funded. City Commission prioritizes funding every single year in a public forum.

    City Hall had 6 instances of mold? What about all of the other buildings that staff and public enter?

    Henry Martinez is right. $1.5 million? Plant a tree. Use the $500k the City actually has to fix the mold problem.

  4. A LANDMARK COLLAPSE. A CITY LESS BEAUTIFUL.
    Just last August I visited the Gondola site with city officials and it was agreed that the Gondola building needed emergency attention! I believe a request was made that same day to secure the landmark and assess the damage so that restoration could begin asap. The city did not act on the request and now faces the consequences. But the neglect did not begin in August, it began decades ago. So much so that in 2019, Dade Heritage Trust added the building to its “12 most endangered sites” list. That same year, the Coral Gables City Commission approved a $500,000 match for a state grant to restore the Gondola building.

    What happened? I understand the grant was not obtained, but where is the half a million dollars earmarked for this project? And why did the city’s historic resources department not prioritize the restoration as per its “endangered” status. Sadly, the Gondola building is not the only landmark being neglected as Gables Insider reported. This dire situation was the reason why two concerned residents proposed a “Landmark Advisory Board” that would act in the “public interest in partnership with the city’s preservation efforts and public works department to make informed and equitable recommendations concerning the maintenance and care of the city’s public landmarks.” Yet, at second reading, the maintenance component was dropped, even after strong opposition. Why was the city so opposed to including maintenance staff as part of the new board? It made no sense then, but in the aftermath of the collapse, it confirms that preservation staff need help.

    Lastly, residents should not need to beg for a budget that includes preservation and maintenance. Hopefully, the Gondola collapse will rearrange the spending priorities of the city. Forty million dollars to spend on a “mobility hub” sounds frivolous when that money can be earmarked to restore the many historic landmarks that are in a state of decades-old deterioration and neglect such as the Gondola building, the Alhambra Water Tower, the White Way streetlights, the Venetian Pool, and on and on.

    As the saying goes, people only appreciate things when they are gone. The Gondola building may be partially gone but not for long. It must be rebuilt to its original state as per national preservation guidelines and it must start NOW.

  5. $1.5M to refurbish the Gondola House which appears to be a one room structure with perhaps 1,000 sq. ft. ??? Too late, level it, clean it up and plant a tree, don’t waste tax payer money on a pretty useless structure that has clearly served no purpose for years. $1.5M that’s insanity.

  6. Thank you GI. All comments are excellent & on point. I sure can see a LOT better use of $40 million to secure the treasures we already have and love vs a “mobility hub” what we don’t even need or want and that is at a ridiculous scale! Let’s get our priorities right!

    And by coincidence this unfortunate collapse is yet another reason that the new Landmark Committee is very important and needs to be staffed by BOTH the Historical/Cultural dept AND Public Works, and not just by the former. There is already a very long list of existing maintenance to do in the due to neglect by all for years and years — let alone this recent negligent catastrophe that says/proves it all.

  7. Yes, we can not place a rock, a paver, artificial grass….nothing in our own land without asking the mother city for permission to then get denied the permission. The big mega buck developers get away with murder, they get what they want…..did you ever wonder why?? Yes the city does not take care of their own dilapidated buildings, they don’t have to since no one is going to slap them with a violation/fee. If your roof, house, grass…..we can go on forever…is not maintained to the city’s specifications you will get a violation and fee immediately. Not to say we shouldn’t have maintenance requirements, we should, but the city should follow suit. So many times they deny what you want to do in your own house, for the simple reason that it is not to their liking. Let’s have rules and regulations apply to everyone, including big developers and the city beautiful.

  8. I would also be interested in the Biltmore’s lease agreement. Parts of the outside of the Biltmore Country Club building are literally crumbling. The windows in the main building were replaced a couple of years ago, but the windows of the Country Club building have been allowed to deteriorate for YEARS. They’re in such disrepair that they exposed parts of the structure to the elements until someone finally covered them with what appears to be plexiglass. Can you imagine what would happen if residents did this with their homes? Also, the decorative woodwork on the part of the building that overlooks the pool from the Country Club ballroom is more deteriorated every time I visit the hotel—which is quite often. So sad.

  9. Ariel,
    While you’re submitting public records requests, would it be possible to get a copy of the Biltmore’s lease agreement between the City and Seaway, along with any subsequent modifications? It should define exactly who’s responsible for what when it comes to maintenance, operations, and compliance. It should also set-forth consequences for any breach of contract on either side.
    Thanks again for your great work Ariel.

  10. Our City MUST be transparent on issues that clearly impact lives.
    One would think there would be a scramble to at least PLAN for assessments. It isn’t good enough to hope that buildings, built well before codes were introduced, are going to “self-maintain”… the sand used in many of these structures was likely beach sand, containing salt, which contributes to the rust and decay of all materials therein.
    For the safety of all involved, residents as well as visitors, given the horrific condo collapse, our City MUST be proactive on this issue. Lives could well be at stake, at which point the funding won’t seem as onerous as it is currently with only a vacant and dilapidated building collapse. (Thankfully no inquisitive children were messing around in the Gondola, as decrepit structures are fascinating to them…

  11. The collapse makes you wonder about the towers that Geroge Merrick built just west of Red Road on the canal leading into the Biltmore Golf Course. They must be just as old as the gondola building, but are in the control of the County since it’s outside of Coral Gables. They have historic designations and the South Florida Water Mmgt District has a control structure there.

  12. There are more city-owned structures than the 5 mentioned here, that are in substandard condition; buildings the public is required to enter if they want a permit to be issued.

    Never understood why city staff requires so much of its residents inside of their homes, spends months reviewing plans but can’t take a look in the mirror for the handful of structures they are responsible for.

  13. re: Gondola building collase & mold in city hall…. The City staff is a joke. I’m remodeling my home in CG, and the coding and permitting requirements are the most ridiculous i’ve seen anywhere, and I’ve built 12 homes all over the USA (job relocations required me to move a lot, we’re finally coming home to Miami). that they put us through rules and regs is not my issue, is that they exempt themselves from the same rules and regs, as if they were above them. they should not be/are not above them. rules andd regs they apply to tax-paying citizens should be followed by those who enable and enforce the rules and regs.

  14. Great spot for Golf Cart Mobility Hub! Biltmore needs more parking, so add a couple stories for valet parking! Apply Med bonus! 😉

  15. It’s unbelievable that after what happened in Surfside, our city government is not addressing the issue of building inspections with the urgency it requires. What can concerned citizens like myself do to put pressure on our city officials to do what we pay them to do?

  16. The Biltmore hotel and golf course designed by the great Donald Ross is a diamond gem for the city beautiful. It’s definitely one of the center pieces of the city.

  17. The double standard here at work B & Z laws are applied only the layman, city believes there exempt, besides there too busy approving new mega multi million $$ developments to worry about almost 100 yr old historical structures. If this Gondola built around 1925 or same time as hotel begs the question be answered as to why any structural/other inspections have not been performed. It is our tax dollars here at play allowing the whole City of C G to operate, citizens wield much more power than most can imagine. The current administration and previous ones haved failed-come election time again accountability will be exercised on the right leaning 4-1 majority commission.

  18. It is a shame that some of our older buildings have not had proper maintenance through the years, such as City Hall. Mold tends to “multiply” itself if not speedily addressed and may cause severe health issues.

  19. And yet, we’re supposed to believe the idea that the city taking over the CGCC is a good one?!? SMDH…

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