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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.