Gordon D. Sokoloff, DDS
Longtime Coral Gables resident and former Chair of the City’s Transportation Advisory Board.
Last week, I attended a neighborhood meeting hosted by developer Allen Morris, who along with his team, presented his proposed “Ponce Park Residences”: 161 apartments and retail slated to be built on Ponce de Leon at University Drive near downtown. It was the developer’s intention to “sell” his vision to those who live in that neighborhood. Mr. Morris stated that he wants to build something “special” in keeping with our “City Beautiful and not City Mediocre”. Here are the take-aways from that meeting:
1. The developer conveyed that the City wants to “gift” a public street to him because of a “dysfunctional intersection” claimed to be caused by the “relief” lane which is the right-hand turn lane off of Ponce de Leon onto University Drive.
Commentary: This relief lane keeps traffic from stacking up along Ponce de Leon. The traffic studies show a relatively low number of fender benders in this area: about 20 in 20 years. Most accidents happen further west on University Dr. where the Vicky Bakery is located. There have been NO fatalities or serious accidents of any kind at this intersection. Neighbors living in this area have never witnessed dysfunction or danger at this intersection either. The residents are firmly against “the city” handing this street over to the developer.
2. When asked who is the “City’ that wants Allen Morris to fix the intersection issue, the answer provided was: the City staff and the Public Works Department.
Commentary: The “City” is not the city staff. Our City staff (including the Public Works Department) are employees who are paid with our tax-dollars. Most are hired and directed by the City Manager, who in turn, is hired and directed by our elected City Commission. The City is comprised of residents who live here, pay their taxes, elect their Mayor and City Commission and whose job it is to direct the City Staff accordingly.
3. According to the property and zoning code, the height allowance for Ponce Park Residences is 75 feet (approximately seven stories). Allen Morris is asking for 179 feet (approximately 16 stories): over DOUBLE what code allows.
Commentary: Morris says that he requires this extra height to do something “special”. While claiming that it would be preposterous to tear down his other project (Alhambra Towers), -or the Biltmore Hotel due to their height, Mr. Morris is correct: the Biltmore is iconic and Alhambra Towers is smack in the middle of downtown Coral Gables, just where it belongs. The neighbors in this residential neighborhood must already endure the effects of The Plaza; they don’t want something nearly just as tall which will contribute to the density and traffic where they live. The residents will support what the zoning code allows: seven stories.
4. The developer boasts that they will be donating a public park made up of cement pavers (no grass) for the residents’ enjoyment as part of their Ponce Park Residences project.
Commentary: Just diagonally across the street is the “Central Park” of Coral Gables: Ponce Circle Park. Ponce Circle Park is well known, large, and has served the community for as long as Coral Gables has existed. The residents do not need nor want another park across the street.
5. Earlier this year, the City Commission passed the Plater-Zyberg Zoning Code rewrite after hours of debate and the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, here’s another developer submitting plans for a project that’s over double the height of what’s allowed by code.
Commentary: Why bother with the expense and arduous task of passing a zoning code rewrite when our City staff doesn’t even enforce the code?? Residents are certainly held to the zoning codes and property ordinances; developers should be required to abide as well.
Any resourceful developer can construct something elegant that is seven stories. Merrick Park is only three stories and is a great example of the kind of construction and scale that beautifully depicts “The City Beautiful”! As an involved resident of Coral Gables, I know of no other resident who proclaims that what Coral Gables needs is more density, traffic, and parking issues which Ponce Park Residences would undoubtedly produce. Our City Commission must act on behalf of their constituents and direct and manage the City Staff, – and not the other way around. More so, the Commission must act on behalf of Ponce residents and direct Mr. Morris to either take his project somewhere else or build it according to what city code allows.