Opinion: The Choice is Clear, We Must Save The Garden of Our Lord

Lisa Maroon

Lifelong Coral Gables resident. Graduate of the Univerity of Miami. Home owner and commercial property owner in the “City Beautiful”

It has recently been brought to my attention that a developer plans to demolish the Garden of our Lord and the specimen oak trees on this property so rich in history. It is a shameful and sad state of affairs that the city of Coral Gables would allow the Garden of our Lord created in 1951, located at the corner of East Ponce and Phoenicia Avenue to be torn down, disassembled or relocated. Any of those options is an absurdity.

The church, school, playground, 100 + year old live oak, (that cannot survive being moved), the architecture of Robert Fitch Smith, the Garden of Our Lord’s significance as a burial ground, a botanical treasure of plants mentioned in the Bible, a repository of plaques commemorating military and civic heroes, and a key component of the green corridor that runs from Ponce to the Douglas Entrance just to name a few are clearly the markings of an historical site. Allowing this important unique landmark to be destroyed or moved would be a travesty and a complete embarrassment to our city.

Actually, by all rights this unique landmark already is clearly an historical site set in a neighborhood that should also be deemed historic as well. Bonnie Bolton presented her 130-page application to the city asking for the Garden of our Lord to be designated historic. Thoughtfully naming 9 qualifying criteria (only 1 criteria is required to be deemed historic) and clearly pointing out all the markings of an historical site. Now it is just the city that must officially recognize it as such, in order to save it from being destroyed by an out of place 9 story high rise mixed-use apartment building.

This hidden in plain site jewel in our great city is one of the original entrance ways into the city of Coral Gables from its founding. Complete with a green corridor lined with specimen trees impressively leading into the city’s north entrance as the original founders intended. Robert Fitch Smith incorporated coral rock into the Garden’s bench wall, grotto and walkways to complement The Women’s Club which sits on the adjacent block. The Garden is an essential part of the neighborhood and it meets the cities criteria for historic designation under the category of aesthetic significance because it “is an easily identifiable feature of its neighborhood.” Altering this historic site will have an irreversible, detrimental and terribly negative impact on the surrounding area including The Coral Gables Women’s Club right across the street, and forever changing the aesthetic fabric and charm of this oasis like neighborhood filled with rich history and tranquility.

If the city leaders were not so blinded by overdevelopment goals, giving developers carte blanch, creating out of place developments of mixed-use high rises, “the bigger the better” and weren’t so deaf to the cry’s of its residents craving preservation of our historic city, this magnificent 1.5 acre property that the garden sits on, has the potential and notoriety of a landmark site, such as a botanical garden, on the scale of a Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Gardens. This unique landmark should be preserved and cherished the same way the city of Pincrest fought to preserve Pinecrest Gardens. Imagine if some of our beloved and prized historic landmarks that we know today, such as the Merrick House, Biltmore Hotel, Venetian Pool, City Hall, The Women’s Club, and the list goes on, were thoughtlessly torn down and disregarded by our predecessors “ in the name of progress.” What if our predecessors didn’t make the right choice to preserve these cherished historic sites. How sad it would be for us today without them. Often times, in order to successfully move forward with a clear and wise vision, we must respectfully reflect back upon history. If we don’t choose correctly now, this priceless unique landmark will be lost forever. This is our time in history to shine and make the right choice too.

It is my understanding that the developer purchased this property knowing it was zoned for Special Use, and therefore did not have As of Right zoning to build a 9 story apartment mixed-use high rise project, but seems he may have taken it for granted that the city officials would oblige. Since It was not zoned for residential, commercial or mixed use and it was zoned for special use only, the city should stand firm and not give in to this developers change of use request. This zoning needs to remain as special use and it is in the city’s power to do so. The city has every moral, legal and ethical obligation to uphold its own laws and ordinances, residents wishes and the founding fathers original intentions of this unique landmark by enforcing that the special use zoning remains intact in order to historically preserve this very valuable, sacred unique landmark in our city beautiful. 

History will prove that in the past lawsuits had to be brought by residents against the city just to get the proper result for the community, many times winning the court’s ruling and proving the city’s choices to be unlawful. It is time for the city to stop selling out the heart and soul of Coral Gables one development after another and govern for the residents. It is time for the city to represent our community well by standing up, being our voice, making choices for the well being of the residents quality of life and not continuing to enrich the pockets of the wealthy developers.

In light of the historic application presented to the city by Bonnie Bolton, any choice the city would make other than standing it’s ground to preserve this historic unique landmark from becoming another oversized out of place mixed-use development would be an absolute mistake on the city’s part and reflect an absence of moral fiber and an appearance of greed. The city would have no excuse for its allowance. The residents know it and the city knows it. 

Bonnie Bolton should be celebrated by the city as the one bringing all of the valuable hidden treasures of this Coral Gables jewel to light (with an equitable governing body she would be).

Now this unique landmark just needs the city’s blessing and stamp of approval to make it all official. The city officials have a moral, legal and ethical obligation to govern according to its own laws and ordinances, residents wishes and the founding fathers original intentions to do make the right choice. Certainly they should not allow this unique landmark, which is well deserving of historic designation, to be destroyed and replaced with a 9 story mixed-use apartment building that does not fit in or belong in that neighborhood. If you have any doubt about it being a very special unique landmark, please request a personal tour from Bonnie Bolton. You will be fascinated.

The choice is clear, we must save the Garden of our Lord. It is my strong belief that any other choice  the city would make, other than approving its historic designation and denying the developers zoning change request, will live in infamy forever and ever as the worst mistake ever made by any mayor and commissioners in the history of the City Coral Gables. I feel that all city officials, in fact, need to make the right choice, use wisdom and fight with all their might to preserve this beautiful block of history by standing firm against overdevelopment and choosing to make this unique landmark historic.

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16 thoughts on “Opinion: The Choice is Clear, We Must Save The Garden of Our Lord

  1. Heartfelt thanks to Lisa Maroon for her spot-on assessment of the state of affairs surrounding The Garden of Our Lord, which — as Bonnie Bolton and others have correctly pointed out — exists on land already zoned for Special Use and that meets many of the City’s criteria for historic designation.

    A lingering question for me is whether or not Sergio Pino’s mixed-use development is simply the wrong project in the wrong place — or whether (as in most successful negotiations) there is a win-win outcome to be found amidst the rubble of controversy.

    In 2023 in the City Beautiful, is all development to be seen as over-development? Is the us vs. them mind-set the only way forward?

    Let’s be mindful of the fact that Florida is now the fastest-growing state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New residents, of course, will need places to live, either within the existing inventory of homes or in new developments designed to bolster supply to meet demand. Coral Gables is no stranger to this trend, so the issue becomes one of collectively managing inevitable urban growth. But, ay, there’s the rub.

    So let’s, for the moment, disregard the issue of architectural style — faux Mediterranean vs. contemporary — and think about a “what if” scenario. Suppose, for instance, Century (now owner of the property where The Garden of Our Lord has been situated since 1951) were to reconfigure its new mixed-use project in such a way as to allow for the preservation and restoration of the Garden’s hallowed grounds, in the process allowing public access to the Garden from Phoenetia Avenue. Such a variation would complement Century’s overall mixed-use concept of blending residential and commercial venues — in other words, private and public spaces. The Garden of Our Lord, in this context, would remain a tranquil green space, as notable for its vintage design as for the grandeur of its decades-old tree canopy. It would also remain (as would the trees) in situ, as opposed to being removed and re-assembled/re-planted at another location — a gesture fraught with potential installation missteps

    Is this just wishful thinking, or a possible solution offered in good faith to our Mayor, Commissioners and not least of all to Sergio Pino?

    Your move, folks.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Bruce Fitzgerald
    Coral Gables resident since 2000 and previous owner of two historically designated homes.

  2. Thank you for this coverage, my family walks that block at least four times a day; my son walked past it during this years at Ponce Middle and Gables high on his way home. The developer should not have purchased it since it was not zoned for residential. As a homeowner, I will be at whatever zoning meeting – we will be watching these politicians.

  3. There is a simple solution to saving the garden: pass the hat among the folk who want to save the garden and buy the property from the current owner.

    Alternatively, convince The City Beautiful to buy the property with taxpayer’s (and voter’s) money.

  4. I’ve heard that Mayor Lago brokered this deal as well as many others whose development site plans do not meet the current zoning as they are larger and expectant on receiving variations. Is there any truth to this? If so I find this to be a huge conflict of interest and beyond crooked.

  5. “From your keyboard to God’s ears!!!” Thanks for your advocacy, Lisa. You are making Coral Gables a better place. Only the uneducated would fail to recognize the value of this garden.

    We need to follow the money and see who runs the show around here. The Commission is always saying how green spaces and pocket parks are needed in new developments. Well, here’s a heritage example already set up… no need to plan it… just restore it and keep it green! They’re not fooling us. Follow the money if this garden isn’t preserved.

  6. Well said, Ms. Maroon. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve written my letter to the mayor, commissioners and historic preservation board and encourage others to do so. These commissioners ran on a platform of reigning in overdevelopment. It is high time they make good on those promises. Will we need to climb the oak to protest the destruction of a tree most likely planted by George Merrick’s team? It shouldn’t come to that, but the thought of losing this green space and history makes me ache.

  7. Compromise. Yes, the perimeter wall is gorgeous compared to what gets built nowadays & the green space is needed most in the denser, North Ponce neighborhood. Pino should build only a 5 story building on the footprint of the church, like the Avignon Condo on Historic Coral Way, and on the empty/ No garden daycare school area. A private walled garden would give the new condominiums so much value! The property would feel like a super exclusive resort with pool and extensive garden area. A rooftop pool & lots of concrete deck doesn’t appeal to the savvy. Less units, more garden equals true luxury. In the Mediterranean & all of Europe, the poor people live in TALL buildings. Isn’t the Gables supposed to be a garden city with Mediterranean architecture. Tall, modern buildings are anti-Mediterranean!

  8. Agree. Greenspace preservation should be paramount in the City at this point as it is a dwindling finite resource. Be that said, this is private property – so greenspace preservation does not mean public greenspace – something sorely lacking in Coral Gables.

    With that said, the more germane issue is that the property is not and has never been zoned for Century’s intended development and, as such, it is within the City’s authority to uphold the zoning and NOT grant yet another exception to yet another developer. Century gambled when it bought the property subject to special use zoning that it could get the City to capitulate. The City is not under any obligation to do so.

    This property is subject to historic designation just as any other property in Coral Gables. So let it go through the process and if it meets the criteria, then it must be so designated. No preferential treatment on either side.

  9. Much ado about nothing but a run down plot of land. Sounds like there are special interests behind the author’s motivation.

  10. I am in agreement with everything Ms. Maroon says. The residents of our city must speak up and voice their opinions to the Mayor, commissioners and the historic preservation board if there is any hope of saving this special place.
    The developer, Sergio Pino, Century Home Builders has a habit of buying property in Miami-Dade County and having it re-zoned to suit his needs. Coral Gables is not Doral or Homestead, he must not be allowed to use his devious plans in our historic city.
    The Garden of Our Lord is unique and worthy of preservation and our city officials must stop this rampant over development for pure greed in our City Beautiful.
    Write your letters today, before it’s too late and the Garden of Our Lord is gone forever.

  11. I hope that for once the commissioners vote to preserve this garden and highlight its history. This is an irreplaceable oasis.

  12. Thank you, Lisa Maroon for a heartfelt and considerate plea for saving this historic property next to another historic property, the Coral Gables Woman’s Club. Development would surely change the tone of the neighborhood, which is peaceful and charming, a reflection of the golden era of Coral Gables with depression-era architecture and structures.

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