Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider
In the heart of Coral Gables, a proposed update to St. Philip’s Episcopal School’s site plan has sparked a contentious debate within the community, displayed during the January 9, 2024 Commission Meeting. The church, a cornerstone of the area for over 70 years, has proposed replacing an existing one-story building with a modern structure of similar design. However, this seemingly straightforward request has unearthed deeper tensions with neighbors over the church’s growing property footprint.
Since its inception, the church, nestled between Coral Way and Salvador Park, has seen considerable expansion of the real property it owns on the block it occupies. Notably, in the early 2000s, the maximum student body count was established, and the church has since assured that this number will not increase. Despite this, the church has acquired adjacent homes, leaving only one privately owned home on the Coral Way side of the block. This expansion has sparked concerns among neighbors regarding the church’s future intentions and its impact on their quality of life.
Waldo Toyos, a local resident, voiced strong opposition, criticizing the church for poorly managing the increased neighborhood traffic, particularly during school drop-off and pickup times. He lamented the damage to city swales and the burden placed on residents to maintain these public spaces. Toyos’s concerns echo a broader sentiment among neighbors who feel the church’s expansion has encroached on their quality of life.
Countering these concerns, a vocal parishioner interviewed for this article and a church representative emphasized that the increased neighborhood use is a result of Salvador Park’s popularity, not the church’s activities. They firmly denied any plans to expand the school’s enrollment and maintained that the church’s use of residential properties has been consistent with historical practices. The church’s stance is that it has not deviated from its historical role in the community, a factor many residents were aware of when purchasing their homes. The Church further defended its efforts to address parking concerns, which included the use of valet service during Church events and other mitigation efforts conscious of its limited parking and the effect on neighbors.
At its November 8th, 2023 meeting, the Planning and Zoning Board discussed the school’s drop-off and pick-up operations, enrollment, and parking. During public comment, residents who live nearby on Coral Way also voiced their concerns about vehicles parked on Cordova. The Board recommended approval of the proposed building structure with additional conditions that the Church be responsible to coordinate with Public Works to install and maintain landscaping and “No Parking Signs,” for swales on both sides of Cordova St, from Coral Way to Andalusia Ave. The landscaping must limit the availability of parking.
Amid these escalating tensions, Mayor Lago proposed a bold solution: constructing a parking garage on church-owned property along Coral Way. While the seriousness of this proposal remains unclear, it fueled the Commission’s debate over potential resolutions, reflecting the complexity of balancing community needs.
Commissioner Menendez and Vice Mayor Anderson offered various solutions, including enhancing underutilized spaces near the south side of the park to alleviate parking woes. Their approach aimed at a holistic resolution, mediating between the differing perspectives to find a mutually beneficial solution.
This ongoing debate raises critical questions about the integration of community institutions like St. Philip’s into predominantly residential areas. The church, a treasured part of Coral Gables’ educational and spiritual landscape, must navigate the challenges of urban expansion while maintaining harmony with its neighbors. The improvements to Salvador Park, including the addition of new equipment and Pickleball Courts have made the park more popular, accentuating the parking issues that are a natural consequence of the various uses of the area. The question arises whether the issue is specifically with St Philips, or if it reflects a broader need for additional park and recreational spaces in the City Beautiful.
The Commission’s decision to hold a public meeting invites all stakeholders to collaboratively seek solutions. This inclusive approach aims to lessen neighborhood burdens, preserve park usage, and support the continued use and contribution of St. Philip’s to the Coral Gables community. As this situation unfolds, it not only impacts the immediate community but also sets a precedent for how similar conflicts might be addressed in residential areas facing institutional expansion.