Opinion: George Merrick’s Planned City Is A Protected Landmark By Unanimous Decision

Karelia Martinez Carbonell

Martinez Carbonell is the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables


George Merrick’s planned city — with its “right-of-ways, parkways, roadways, alleys, open space, parks, swales, reservations, sidewalks, waterways…”  — is a protected landmark by unanimous decision.

Coral Gables is among a limited number of municipalities whose “city plan” is a local historic landmark, officially recognized in 2018 by a unanimous vote of the City Commission [Resolution #2217-240 and Ordinance #2018-13].

And with that designation, George Merrick’s planned city — with its “right-of-ways, parkways, roadways, alleys, open space, parks, swales, reservations, sidewalks, waterways…”  — is legally protected.

Furthermore, the plan’s landmark status should not only protect its carefully developed urban landscape from ill-conceived projects that detract from the

harmonious existing attributes of Merrick’s vision, but safeguard against any potential giveaways of these public spaces [i.e. “right-of-ways,” “roadways,” “alleys,” etc.]More on this matter later.
In planning Coral Gables, founder George Merrick employed the concepts of the Garden City and City Beautiful movements of comprehensive planning.  This type of planning took into account aesthetics and functionality. 

One must remember that these movements a rose from the need to eliminate unsanitary living conditions endemic to major cities during the early 20th century. Merrick planned his city during this time and he understood the importance of promoting and incorporating health and sanitation in his planned metropolis.

Alleys are not fodder.  They are fundamental.

This point segues to the issue of “alleys” and their importance and purpose in terms of allowing a city center to function. The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Alleys [some narrow and some broad] play a crucial role as a matter of sanitation, distribution, demarcation, and emergency service roads. On page three of the plan’s designation report, it states, “The business,  industrial and commercial sections also had narrow internal streets along the rear of the lots.” Alleys may be in the rear, but they are front and center to the development of the urban core. 

Alleys are the arteries vital to the proper functioning of modern city life [urban living] and serve as deterrents to urban crawl.  In planning his city, Merrick left nothing to want. Needless to say, alleys are important.

__________________________

Protect our public land

Which brings this conversation to the July 25th Commission meeting. 

The recent Commission meeting was long and expectations were high. Specifically in regards to the Ponce Park item on the agenda. All discussion centered on height of the project but not on the implication of vacating the public alley. 

Item F-13: An Ordinance of the City Commission approving the vacating of a public alley…

Vacating a public alley [for the benefit of a private entity] is a key concession. Without the alley, the Ponce Park project would need to be reevaluated.  The code allows 50 feet. The proposal asks for three times the height.

Coincidentally, Miami Beach voters will face this same topic in August. Referendum #6 would require a voter referendum before the city could “vacate” streets or other public property to allow developers to increase the density of their projects. Vacating a public space means a city turns over control of a public asset to a private property owner. This “loophole,” as per Miami Beach Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez, has allowed developers to increase the density of their projects without voter input. When the city surrenders control of a roadway to a developer, the developer can include that roadway’s area in density calculations and increase the size of their buildings [Miami Herald, July 25, 2022].

Coral Gables voters do not need a referendum to protect their public spaces because they should be able to depend on the city’s Historic City Plan–a historically designated local landmark–to guard its public assets.The city plan is the blueprint that protects Merrick’s city.

Last year, regarding the Ponce Park project, both city planning staff and city historic preservation staff recommended to deny the alley. The preservation department citing “alleys” as protected public land per the Coral Gables Historic City Plan. This guiding principle should remedy the issue of vacating alleys or other public spaces without the need for residents to succumb to a voter referendum as per Miami Beach.

In 1940, Merrick thanked the City for its vigilance, the success of the ordinances, and said that moving forward there “should be no let-down in the Coral Gables plan which has been so successfully lived up to” [Miami News, April 4, 1940]

The historic city plan is a powerful instrument for Coral Gables leaders.  Let’s not let Merrick down. 

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13 thoughts on “Opinion: George Merrick’s Planned City Is A Protected Landmark By Unanimous Decision

  1. This article is an important primer on the legal protection of the alley through the Coral Gables historic city plan.

    What should capture everyone’s attention with regard to this at the moment is the Planning & Zoning Board meeting on June 8, 2022 described here in clear detail.

    https://gablesinsider.com/morris-controversial-ponce-park-residences-once-again-fails-to-secure-support-of-planning-and-zoning-board

    Everyone take note of all board member statements and the voting record of each on that date with regard to the alley (item E-1).

    Members of the Planning & Zoning Boasd must have known about the historic city plan and its adoption in 2018 by the City Commission. They must have understood it is a legal ordinance.

    Nevertheless FOUR of the board members voted YES to forward a recommendation to the Commission to vacate the alley (allowing the developer to build bigger and higher) in contradiction of the legal ordinance. How is this possible?

    The alley passed 4-1 (YES: Revuelta, Withers, Behar and Aizenstat. NO: Miro). Bucelo was absent. Torre left early.

    The board members that voted to vacate the alley did so under either of the following circumstances.

    Those FOUR are either ignorant of the historic city plan (an unacceptable failure in their responsibility as members of the board) OR knowingly ignored the legal ordinance.

    Either is reason to call for the IMMEDIATE dismissal and replacement of Revuelta, Withers, Behar, and Aizenstat.

    Their conflicts of interest are the unacceptable cause.

  2. Thank you for efucatkng us. In 1961, when i arrived here, Coral Gsbles was a quiet city. Now the traffic.is awful and many houses.have nothing to.do with the Mediterranean style.
    Just tske a look at the “fountain” at the circle of Biltmore and Segovia. It is an eyesore and it cost us one.million dollars.
    Alleys belong to.us. i am disappointed with.cify governance.

  3. “Alleys are fundamental,” and protected; not to be given to developers or residents. Alleys belong to our City and the people, and are not for sale or to give away.
    Thank you Dr. Carbonell for educating so many of us and explaining it so thoroughly.

  4. Indeed thank you to the author of this article and to readers for the comments below.

    The point is clear and thanks to the HISTORIC CITY PLAN there is no alley in the City of Coral Gables that is or ever will be available for appropriation by homeowners, builders, or developers.

    This is a LEGAL protection of the landscape, protecting principally against aggregation of land by developers to build structures larger and taller than permitted by the individual plats.

    The design of the city was the result of sophisticated study, meticulous planning, and conscious adherence to principles of The City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, inspired by many famous predecessors though particularly Shaker Heights in metropolitan Cleveland.

    Coral Gables was intended to remain at a certain height and proportion, and the quadrants of land on the map reflect the intention, while the HISTORIC CITY PLAN designation ensures its integrity.

    Thankfully in 2018 this was ensured unanimously by the City Commission.

  5. Thank you Dr. Carbonell for educating Coral Gables residents.

    When it becomes evident that a city commission disregards building codes and ordinances in favor of developers, and to the detriment of residential households, it is time for residents to act and the Historic City Plan is the basis for action even more fundamental than code.

    There is lack of knowledge in Coral Gables about the Historic City Plan, because it was designated by the Historic Preservation Board and approved unanimously by the Commission in 2018 and, as you have pointed out previously, the ordinance has yet to be challenged.

    The ongoing controversy with the Allen Morris building proposed for the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and University Drive, across from the disproportionate Plaza, appears to present the first substantial challenge to the Historic City Plan since approval in 2018.

    There are multiple significant concessions on request by the developer on this project, such as an egregious increase in height to 149 feet when code allows 50 feet, that if granted would result in a concrete canyon on the corner Ponce de Leon and University. The height has predominated so far in discussions, because it is a familiar topic to residents, one that is tangible. However it is the Historic City Plan that determines the result of this controversy, and future similar disputes, as it preserves all public right-of-ways on the entire length of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and in all of Coral Gables, including the alley requested at present, thus protecting our residential neighborhoods from encroachment.

    The residents of Coral Gables need to be educated about the content, value, and importance of the Historic City Plan, the importance of all right-of-ways including alleys for emergency and other service bypass routes in the context of increasing densification in our urban landscape, and the emphasis residents need to make in letters or statements opposing the Allen Morris project. It is imperative that this developer’s petition to vacate the alley and a section of University Drive to increase square footage (ie. allowable height) be denied by all city board members and commissioners.

    It has been mentioned and really would be wonderful if Allen Morris acknowledges that this controversial project should be abandoned in favor of a bona fide park with carved stone benches, a refreshing Mediterranean fountain, and magnificent banyan trees to provide softness on this visible corner in contrast to the massive concrete wall of the Plaza across the street.

  6. The Plaza was “one” that slipped past the goalie, unfortunately. Now, with Ponce Park Residences, – pointing to the Plaza and saying: “see, they did it, why not us?” That’s what’s going on here! If Allen Morris is allowed to build against what Code allows, the problem is simply going to metastasize all the way down Ponce de Leon. It’s up to THIS City Commission to step up to the plate and do one simple thing: ENFORCE OUR CODES and deny this project to be built as presented. The jobs of our City Commission are outlined by City Ordinances and our Zoning Codes. Enforce the codes, just as the Boards would do to any resident who wanted to do something egregious with their own property, and you will have performed your jobs dutifully: -> for the residents and most importantly, for Coral Gables. Thank you Ms. Carbonell for highlighting this important aspect to the Ponce Park Residence debacle. This project must go back to the drawing board.

  7. BEWARE. IF THE ALLEY IS VACATED ON FIRST READING, UNIVERSITY DRIVE [a protected public space “roadway” under Ordinance 2018-13] IS NEXT ON SECOND READING. SEE AGENDA ITEM F-7 July 25, 2022.

    F-7. 21-2009 A Resolution of the City Commission approving the Tentative Plat entitled “Ponce Park Residences” pursuant to Zoning Code Article 14, “Process,” Section 14-210, “Platting/Subdivision,” being a re-plat of 42,543 square feet (0.977 acres) into a single tract of land on the property legally described as Lots 8 through 21, less the West ½ of lot 8, Block 29, Crafts Section, together with that portion of the 20-foot platted alley lying east of Lots 11 and 19, of said Block 29, together with a 1,318 square feet portion of University Drive that runs north of the Malaga Avenue right-of-way and west of the Ponce de Leon Boulevard right-of-way and dedication of 1,725 square feet; (3000 Ponce de Leon Blvd, 216 & 224 Catalonia, 203 University Dr, and 225 Malaga), Coral Gables, Florida; including required conditions; providing for a repealer provision, severability clause, and providing for an effective date. (LEGAL DESCRIPTION ON FILE) (Tentative Plat)

    (This Resolution is not for consideration at this time and will be included with the above Ordinance on Second Reading if approved on First Reading.)

    Lobbyist: Anthony De Yurre Lobbyist: Lauran Kahn Lobbyist: W. Allen Morris Lobbyist: Walter Allen Spencer Morris

  8. Thank you for this on point, informative & well researched article. As I see it, since 2018 when the mentioned city plan resolution/ordinance was approved by the City Commission, this document is LEGAL and must be followed by ALL city staff, boards & the commission (as well as owners/builders/developers). Just as residents need to build/remodel/restore within their purchased lot and cannot gratuitously appropriate additional lot footage by asking to take over the front swale on their houses and/or easements or other land that belongs to them but to the city or to FPL, the developer of Ponce Park can NOT be given something that is not his and belongs to the city and its residents — this is LEGALLY up for bartering. And no matter what is offered back. Period. (If he wants to donate a park, then he can do it to enhance the property and as a good neighbor, not offer this as a kind of bribe as this clearly is.) Aside from the legal implications, the giving away of the alley is a huge PUBLIC SAFETY issue. The alleys are built into the code for very important reasons as they “play a crucial role as a matter of sanitation, distribution, demarcation, and emergency service roads” as this article eloquently points out. As such, it is critical that they are allowed to function fully ad intended. I don’t know when/if alleys have ever been given away in the past to developers (hope not!) but as of today & since the 2018 implementation of the city plan resolution & ordinance, this cannot happen —- not for this project, not for any other project. Not as a homeowner nor as a developer can it be ok to “tack on” additional land that does not belong to you — no exceptions! Can u imagine the chaos that would occur if everyone started to do this because it was allowed to one developer (or to one homeowner)? Just say NO from the start. That’s it. Commissioners: Follow the rules, follow the plan. That is your legal duty. Keep OUR alley & let it function as intended. The developer needs to work with what he bought (and be held to the existing code he bought into). Be consistent. Avoid future complications. Mr Developer: “If the shoe (doesn’t) fit, then (don’t) wear (buy) it”. End of story.

  9. Thank you, Ms Martinez for enlightening us.

    Regarding the West side of Lejeune,
    Isn’t having at least a 1 car garage or carport a REQUIREMENT for single family houses? I see so many homes being remodeled and the garages eliminated, resulting in cars parked on the swales. Is this allowed because the governments, the Gables & Dade County want more air conditioned space to collect more in property taxes?

  10. Simple Solution Mr Developer.
    Follow the historic City Plan, don’t expect to take something that is not yours! Back to the drawing board. . . . .
    Be respectful of the guidelines and the correct code and voilà- problem solved. It really is that easy.

  11. Thank you, Dr. Carbonell. We are fortunate. As a designated landmark, the Historic City Plan is very clear in intent; legal protection of our public resources!

  12. Ponce Plaza was a BIGLY mistake that we will have to endure forever. THIS. CANNOT. HAPPEN. AGAIN!

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