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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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.