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.