Morris’ Controversial Ponce Park Residences Once Again Fails To Secure Support Of Planning And Zoning Board

Ariel Fernandez

Founder & Editor
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On Wednesday, June 8th, the Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Board once again took up the Ponce Park Residences project proposed by developer, W. Allen Morris.

Board Member Venny Torre kicked off the meeting with a procedural question regarding the order of the items on the agenda. He was curious as to why the vacation of the alley was first, not the comprehensive plan for the project. Development Services Director Suramy Cabrera, who was filling in for Planning and Zoning Director Ramon Trias who is on leave through August when his resignation takes effect, said she was not sure why it was in this order, but that it would be in the correct order at the Commission meeting. The board was informed that they could take the issues up in the order they wished. This would prove to be an issue and cause confusion throughout the meeting.

Morris’ Presentation

Morris’ attorney, Anthony De Yurre, began the presentation and explained that “a challenge was brought to him (Morris) to create a better project.” and he explained that he had. At which point he called Morris up to personally present the changes.

Morris explained that his “mission is to inspire, impress and improve.” He made six assertions about his concessions on this project, a term that would later be challenged by the Board: 1) he would take no FAR from the road, 2) he was reducing the number of units by half, 3) the project would have 20% less square feet, 4) there would be 5 floors less bringing the project height to half the height of the controversial Plaza across Ponce de Leon Boulevard, 5) no rental apartments only luxury condos, and 6) 92 less parking spaces.

Following Morris’ presentation, the Board opened up the public comments portion of the meeting, during which 26 individuals spoke, along with the attorney for neighboring residents who oppose the project, David Winker.

Intimidation Tactic?

The first comment was by resident Maria Cruz. She voiced numerous concerns over the project and process. In what seemed like a clear attempt to intimidate residents. following Cruz’s comments, De Yurre asked the Board to allow for him to cross examine residents who were giving public comments. The Board Attorney said he would be able to do so during his rebuttal. De Yurre never asked a single question of any of the members of the public who spoke.

Public Comments

The public comments section was interesting. 17 residents spoke out against the project, they were from different parts of the City. 9 individuals spoke out in favor of the project, not one lives close to the project, one of them does not reside in the City, another is Morris’ next door neighbor and another his mother-in-law.

Map of addresses provided by speakers who spoke in the Public Comment section of the meeting.
Supporters of the project are marked in green, opponents of the project are marked in red.
Does not include speaker who is not a Coral Gables resident.

The residents against presented their concerns. Some of their concerns included: 1) the impact of traffic on their already saturated streets, 2) the size of the project overshadowing residential neighborhoods, 3) why the project is being proposed outside the scope of what is allowed by the zoning code, 4) their disagreement with the City giving the developer the alley and part of University Drive, 5) as well as their concern over City staff recommending approval of the project.

Those in favor seemed to follow the same talking points. Their main focus was what a great person Morris is and how he is a great member of the community.

Some were more forceful. One explained that residents are NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and their approach does not work for the benefit of the community. He explained that no one should care what the neighbors close to the project want, explaining that the City needs to focus on the ones who live away from the building not those who live close. Another explained that it was going to happen whether those residents wanted it or not. Both live over 2 and a half miles away from the project.

Morris’ mother-in-law, former Coral Gables Mayor Dorothy Thomson, who compared Morris to City founder George Merrick as a visionary developer. She addressed Board Members Withers and Torre directly calling them some of the best colleagues she served with.

Rebuttal

De Yurre asked for the Board to ignore resident comments, citing case law that polling residents was not allowed by the Court. He made it clear he was creating a record, seemingly to set his client up for a potential law suit against the City if the project is not approved. He also explained that residents were “lay witnesses” and professional City staff was more competent at deciding what is best for the community. In regards to the alley, he took it a step further, explaining that “the alley does not belong to the residents.”

Lack of Lobbyist Registration

Attorney David Winker addressed the Board and asked about Morris’ lack of lobbyist registration. The Board’s attorney explained that Morris did not need to citing County code, “Any person requested to appear before the city commission, city board, committee, or any member thereof, or the city manager or city staff or any agent, attorney, officer or employee of such person, in a quasi-judicial proceeding where ex-parte communications are prohibited.” Gables Insider made a public record request for the City’s request for Morris to appear. No record of a request could be found. In an email to Gables Insider, City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos stated that, “my assumption is that Mr. Morris’ participation was not requested by the City, but instead, by his attorney. This exception does not require that the request be by the governmental body.”

Board Discussion

In order to recommend approval to the Commission, the 7-member board would be required to pass the items with 4 votes in favor. The board was already down one member, as Alex Bucelo was not present for the meeting. As the discussion was under way. Torre spoke in support of the project saying this was the best project for this area, but excused himself as he had a flight to catch, leaving only 5 members in the room.

Board Member Claudia Miro voiced her concern over the height. She explained she was concerned with an issue brought up in the past, that the Coral Gables Fire Department would be overstretched and is not equipped to fight high rise fires, requiring reliance on mutual aid agreements with neighboring municipalities in order to fight a potential high rise fire. She explained that one of the members of the public in favor of the project had explained that the priority needed to be people wanting to move into the City. She countered that, “my concern is us, the residents.” not those who want to move into the City. She stated that “Mr. Morris can put a project there that is more consistent with the code,” adding, “I’d like to stick as close as possible to the Code.”

Board Member Luis Revuelta explained that his biggest concern was that if they did not approve the project, the next proposal from another developer might be a less desirable project. He argued that this might be the best project proposed at this spot. He also explained he wanted to vacate the alley, even if this doesn’t pass, to make it easier on the next developer or this one.

Board Member and former Coral Gables Commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers prefaced his comments by saying he had friends who were going to be upset by his comments. He called out Morris on the concessions he was making. He explained that concessions are not being given, rather Morris has reduced what he has asked outside of the City’s code, but has made no concessions. Withers asked staff about the 10% open space requirement on the project. He wanted to know if the alleyway (one of the developer’s ask from the City) is a 7% of the open space requirement. Withers stated that “open space to me means seeing the sky not a slab above.” Staff had to check the code in order to answer Withers and confirmed that open to the sky is the requirement. The alleyway will not be open to the sky.

This was just one example of how Development Services Director Cabrera was not prepared and lacked the knowledge necessary to represent the City in front of the Board. On more than one occasion the board asked her questions she was unable to answer. She went as far as stating that she had not written the recommendations, blaming outgoing Planning and Zoning Director Ramon Trias, who was not present to defend himself, for the recommendation to approve the project. De Yurre who was pacing and hovering over Cabrera, can be seen on the video speaking with her and whispering to her as she addressed the Board. On several other occasions questions posed to staff were answered by De Yurre. Seemingly, the professional City staff De Yurre wanted the Board to take advise from over residents, required his coaching.

Left to right: Anthony De Yurre, Development Services Director Suramy Cabrera and the City Planner.

Cabrera and the City Planner chimed in that for this project, right-of-way improvements would be counted as the required open space. In other words, the project will be given a free pass and allowed to maximize its buildable area because of right-of-way improvement credited for the code required 10% open space.

Board Member Robert Behar also explained his friends would disapprove of his comments. He explained that “I want to see what benefits the City and what is best for the good of the City.” He was also concerned over the open space requirement. He also voiced his concern over the location of the loading area on University. Behar questioned the building height as described. He explained that in reality the building is not 12-stories as described, rather a 14-story building with 13 residential and parking stories with a 14th floor rooftop with amenities. “It is truly 14 stories.” he explained. He added that “I have a problem with the 149 feet,” referring to the height of the building.

De Yurre explained that the parking levels do not count if they are below the height of a first floor, so it counts as a 12-story building.

Board Chairman Eibi Aizenstat explained that he had concerns with the lack of a traffic study and the timing of the traffic study originally conducted in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue brought up by residents. The Code reads that no traffic study is necessary for a project like this, but he explained that “with the Plaza across, we don’t understand the impact that will have on the street.” His second concern is there are 80 units, and the new proposal is reducing parking by 92 spaces. He stated that “the City has never said its good to reduce parking.” Reduction allows them to have more apartments and reduce the lower footprint.

Director Cabrera stepped in and stated that “If we reduce parking we will have less cars and less traffic.” A talking point used by City staff for years, which has seemingly been applied to other projects and continued to exacerbate a growing issue in the City where finding parking is a larger problem every day.

The Votes

A motion was made to approve the comprehensive plan with a condition that it is reduced to 130 feet in height. That motion died for lack of second.

Behar made a motion to approve at 110 feet. The Board asked if the developer would consider a reduced height. De Yurre stated they would not agree to a reduction at this time.

Miro then motioned not to approve the comprehensive plan (E-2). it was seconded by Withers and passed by a 3-2 vote (YES: Miro, Withers, Aizenstat. NO: Revuelta and Behar).

When it came to the TDRs, Board Member Revuelta made a motion to approve and it was seconded by Withers. The motion passed 4-1 (YES: Revuelta, Withers, Behar and Aizenstat. NO: Miro).

The concern over whether votes should continue once again came about. The argument was made that with the comprehensive plan not approved, the other points were moot. Chair Aizenstat was concerned over approval without a site plan. The Board attorney recommended they take votes on all items before them.

On item E-1, the vacation of the alley, a motion was made to approve it with the condition that it only applied if the property is developed and that there is unity of title with the adjacent lots. In other words, only if the owner is in possession of both lots. The motion passed 4-1 (YES: Revuelta, Withers, Behar and Aizenstat. NO: Miro).

Item E-5 followed the same conditions and vote results.

It is important to note that the vacation of the alley without a comprehensive plan or project would add immense value to Morris’ land, as it changes what can be built, its potential height and adds to the FAR.

On item E-4, Behar motioned and Miro seconded to deny re-categorizing it as MXD (mixed use district in old code). They are still using the old code for this project, as their initial proposal was submitted prior to the 2021 rewrite. The motion passed on a 3-2 vote (YES: Miro, Behar and Aizenstat. NO: Withers and Revuelta).

The project will now go to the City Commission for its consideration.

Meeting Video

Click here to watch the video of the meeting.

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20 thoughts on “Morris’ Controversial Ponce Park Residences Once Again Fails To Secure Support Of Planning And Zoning Board

  1. What is the purpose of having city codes and zoning? It seems that most of the new projects are in violation of all the codes and zoning. The Agave project is a monstrosity. Traffic on Ponce during rush hour is terrible and the Agave project is not even occupied. As many have commented, the rules are only applied to individual citizens with individual homes. The reason we live in Coral Gables is because we like low density and low rise buildings. We did not sign up for a concrete jungle.

    Why bother with the charade of meetings and public approval processes? Many of the residents left Latin America and the Caribbean because they were tired of the way their governments worked. Yet, Coral Gables is beginning to feel a lot like a banana republic. I am very dismayed with what I see happening in Coral Gables and the power that many developers sway to have all of the rules set aside for them. We need to ask ourselves, what would induce our government officials to approve all of these variances? I think the answer is easy to guess.

  2. This greed is appalling.
    This is the most powerful board in this City.
    This board was appointed by this commission. They know how the people they appoint will vote. They are the ones responsible for appointing people who will not protect the residents best interests. It’s pathetically funny how the board members feign concern about missing traffic studies, lack of concessions, alley give aways, too much height, etc., etc., then vote to approve anyway.
    The gall of the developer and attorney talking about “concessions”. There is not ONE concession made by this developer. There is only somewhat less less greed.
    The gall of the developers attorney coaching city staff. This is third world conduct. This entire city administration should be fired and Coral Gables citizens should demand a new start.

  3. The developer can build a quality project to CODE.
    Thank you Mrs Cruz and Dr Carbonell, right on point!

  4. Build to code or don’t build. End of story. Enough of the special treatment of developers. Enough of the one hand washes the other. Enough of the offers one can’t refuse. Enough of bullying and ignoring the residents, the condescending attitudes, the Chutzpeh.(great yiddish word)
    Just do the right thing and listen to the constituents who do not want to live in a concrete jungle
    in our erstwhile placid residential city.

  5. If MG Developer & Board member Venny Torre making millions with 3 story townhouses why does Morris need such a tall building? Agave Developer has spent BIG BUCKS beautifying/ redoing surrounding residential streets with grass swales, trees & drainage to please/ appease neighbors. What is Morris offering?

  6. How can the effect of traffic caused by this project be assessed before the two projects east of Ponce Circle are finished and fully functional? The amount of traffic generated by these two huge projects, both residential and retail, will be significantly more than the traffic presently observed. Why not wait six months and find out?

    I find it hard to believe that this is not being addressed by city staff. Incompetence or worse?? Should not the Mayor and Commissioners take note of the obvious?

  7. What gall these lawyers and pro development people have. Again we are told staff knows more than us. Whay the Hell is going on here and who pays the taxes to keep the City operating? We do. How can you say some of the comments that were made without laughing at the lunacy. And to tell us it will happen anyway is total arrogance. Granted I think Mr Morris personally is a great guy, but that does not allow for business dealings. I am so sick of the Gables politicians and staff that we need a total change over with individuals who respect and support the real bosses here, the citizens. I am appalled by what I read and it now has brought me to anger and to fight back. No huge developments, no new construction and all new leadership.

  8. I don’t understand why are they considering a change of code for the benefit of a developer. I feel that the code is only applied to residents, for example, if you paint your house red the City will come after you and make your life miserable. But it is ok to consider to build a structure that is double the high allowed by code and on top of that to gift an alley to make it possible. Who are these “boards” working for?.

  9. This meeting was embarrassing on all accounts— classic case of how NOT to run a meeting: residents nor being heard (except thankfully by Claudia Miro), some speakers not allowed to continue while others took more time, attorney way too friendly w/ city staff, developer & attorney pretending to negotiate things “down” that were not even on the table to begin with (what type of “concession” is that?), Ms. Cabrera being clueless and unprepared a lot of the time & defensive in others, staff “blaming” code vs their decisions/recommendations, not honoring one of the most important things —- that the alley is part of the city plan and as such is not to be given away to then allow the developer the height he wants (and not what he bought), attorney negotiating before our eyes with the P&Z members, developer’s attorney telling ( intimidating as the GI points out) P&Z members what they could/could not legally take into account (and part of this being inaccurate it later was found), “mansplaining” to Ms. Miro by some of the P&Z members and on and on. Even an influential mother-in-law putting in a “good word” for the developer Mr Morris —- sorry, but the issue at stake is not related to his character — it’s that he doesn’t want to build within what the code allows under the conditions and terms he bought into to begin with (hello, alley that is not yours!). The rest of us need to abide by all this —- so why not Mr Morris? Disgraceful meeting and a new low reached. PLEASE stop this nonsense and insist that this & other developers build to code!

  10. Homeowners are given hell to improve their homes which increases value in tangible and non-tangible ways for the city. Developers come and literally take public right of way and the city melts over it. Something is wrong here people!

  11. The bootlicking, greed & dishonesty at display here shocks the conscience. Any p & z board sell out member approving this project needs to be terminated immediately. Zoning code allows height of 77’ & 7 stories yet this filthy rich developer is allowed 149’ & 14 stories? The C G city constitution needs a change to allow residents without a recall to remove any corrupt official or board member at will by its residents.

  12. Old Chippy is not a Commissioner anymore but still boot licking the developer’s heels. Does Reveulta live in the city or is he just trying to gin up business for a mediocre architectural firm?

  13. KEEP PUBLIC SPACES PUBLIC.

    PONCE PARK RESIDENCES WILL ENCROACH ON MERRICK’S HISTORIC CITY PLAN which protects “right-of-ways, parkways, roadways, alleys, open space, parks, swales, reservations, sidewalks, waterways…”

    With the exception of board member Claudia Miro, who empathized and acknowledged residents concerns, the others spent the time negotiating with the developer’s attorney for the right to vacate the alley [alleys are protected under Merrick’s master plan and the request to vacate the alley was denied by the Historic Preservation Board back in October] in order to enjoin the two parcels. This is a key concession. Without the alley, the developer cannot build higher. The code allows 77 feet/7 stories, the developer’s new proposal is a 149-foot tower standing at 12-stories.

    Developers should stay “in their lane” as the saying goes. Keep hands off public land and build within code. This should remedy the issue.

  14. I applaud the residents of Coral Gables for standing up to a developer that would degrade the quality life for the profit of a few investors. I wish the residents of Miami had similar Chutzpah, but our politicians repeat the mantra ‘up or out’ as though they gave a damn about the UDB.

  15. Here we go again! The staff report states that this project complies with every requirement and thus they recommend approval. It certainly does not mention that if the alley is not vacated the property will be short of the required square ft; that the comprehensive plan needs to be amended, that there is a need for the approval of the TDR transfer, that University Drive’s curvature needs to be straightened……….. In other words unless the City agrees to everything they have asked for the project wont be able to be built as designed!!!!

    Of course the developer also needs the City to ignore the residents that live next to this proposed development. Oh, since Mr. Morris is a very nice person, a philanthropist, etc. the City should allow him to go ahead and destroy this neighborhood! And, since the Plaza was built, forget that nobody knows how it happened, this project should also be approved!

    Every person who spoke in favor of this project does not live in the area, and is connected somehow to Mr. Morris!

    The bottom line is that this project does not stand by itself! I am sure there are more suitable areas for this project! Let’s hope that the elected officials listen to what the people have said and vote NO to this travesty!!

  16. María Cruz has it right from the beginning. This can be built within the code. The City residents already have enough.

  17. We neighbors need to restrain overdevelopment on our doorstep. Morris knew the zoning when he bought the properties, zoning which protects our quality of life. We can’t allow his greed to destroy our homes irrevocably. We each need to contact our commissioners to let them know we strongly oppose this project.

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