Opinion: (Un)enhanced Mediterranean Design Requirements

Brett Gillis

Dr. Gillis is a member of the Historic Preservation Board of the City of Coral Gables and board member emeritus of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables (HPACG).  This op-ed is written as a concerned individual.

This letter is in response to the proposed “enhancements” to Coral Gables’ Mediterranean Ordinance, which I do not believe will “enhance” Mediterranean design in the City.  On the contrary, the proposed measures sponsored by Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson could encourage buildings that may be even “less Mediterranean” than some of the monstrosities that have recently been constructed.  I am also troubled by the fact that the Historic Preservation Board (yes, the board that works the most with the buildings this ordinance seeks to emulate) has not been included in the process.  One must question the motivations.

Buildings with basic architectural elements, bicycle storage, vertical breaks and a few other basic street-level amenities may receive bonuses under the current Mediterranean ordinance.  Two bonus “levels” are available.  The Level 1 bonus permits an increase in the floor area ratio (read: increased bulk/intensity) and 1 additional story (read: additional height) if 6 to 8 (depending on zoning classification) out of 12 qualifications are met.  Sadly, most of these qualifications (such as arcades/loggias, horizontal and vertical changes in the roofline, building stepbacks and towers) are highly subjective and should naturally occur on any high-quality Mediterranean building.  Worse, some of the qualifications relate to driveways, landscape lighting, overhead doors, pavers, etc. and have nothing to do with constructing a Mediterranean building, let alone a high-quality one.  The Level 2 bonus permits even more floor area ratio and an additional 1 or 2 more stories of height (because of recent upzoning) if design elements and architectural styles of the buildings listed below are included.  Yet another level of bonus, called “Other Development Options,” is also offered to developers.  Should this be called Level 3 bonus?  These “options” allow the reduction of setbacks, encroachments into the public right of way, reduction of off-street parking in the Central Business District and a 25% increase in residential density!  Merry Christmas, developers! 

New Coral Gables Mediterranean buildings that receive the Level 2 bonus are supposed to contain design elements and architectural styles of the following buildings to obtain this Level 2 bonus.

[My annotations and comments are in green italics.]

a.  H. George Fink Offices, 2506 Ponce de Leon Boulevard   This is generally regarded as the best example of the Mediterranean style in the Gables and how a small-scale Mediterranean building should look.  Buildings that obtain the Level 2 bonus should be of a similar class.

b. The Colonnade Building, 169 Miracle Mile   This is a beautiful Beaux Arts building but should not be included in the Mediterranean handbook as an excellent example of the Mediterranean style per se.    Its profound symmetry would only translate well to a new building if it were likewise only a few stories high.  It is, however, a good example of how a sensitive, if massive, addition was executed in back of an important historic Coral Gables building.

c. Douglas Entrance, 800 Douglas Road   This is an excellent example when viewed in its entirety.  Like most of the other larger examples, it would need to be scaled downed if used as an inspiration for a building on a smaller parcel.

d. Coral Gables Elementary School, 105 Minorca Avenue   Another excellent example when taken in its entirety.

e. Granada Shops/Charade Restaurant, 2900 Ponce de Leon Boulevard   It is sad that this quaint building was lost to arson.  This was an excellent example of the type of Old Spanish commercial buildings George Merrick envisioned for the Crafts Section.  That said, it its totality, it is not one of the better examples that could be given in today’s world, considering that most commercial buildings that are constructed today are much, much larger.  Thus, this one should be removed from the list of exemplars.

f. San Sebastian Apartments, 333 University Drive  The San Sebastian is certainly one of Coral Gables’ most iconic historic structures, but its strong, horizontal massing and mostly uninterrupted plan should not be encouraged today.  Emulating this structure with new buildings that are taller than 2 or 3 stories has created what residents describe as “concrete canyons.”  Thus, this one should be removed from the list of exemplars unless reserved for townhouse-type developments.

g. Coral Gables City Hall, 405 Biltmore Way   This is another Beaux Arts building of outstanding quality and the last major building in Coral Gables that founder Geroge Merrick was involved with.  Including it is a nice thought, but likely aspirational!

h. Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Avenue  I call The Biltmore the “mirror of the Gables.”  In many ways, it is a reflection of the beautiful Old Spanish buildings in the North Gables, but, sadly, its Giralda tower and other individual components have been riffed numerous times throughout the City, seldom with success.  Something is lost because The Biltmore’s overall plan and proportions are not translated along with the design elements.  It would be nearly impossible to translate the success of this building today as the amount of land necessary to do so is seldom, if ever, available and the construction cost of its opulence and intricacy is impractical.

Ask yourself how many recently constructed buildings in Coral Gables espouse the architectural styling of any of these buildings!  There are no guidelines in the code as to how the Board of Architects must verify if the “design elements and architectural styles” have been included.  No impartial expert panel (of historians, preservationists, professors, etc.) is required to confirm that a proposed building emulates these landmark structures, yet a “special master” program exists to potentially override the Board of Architects when a developer or builder does not get what they want on certain matters!  Thus, the Board tends to approve Level 2 bonuses for buildings that are not true examples of the Coral Gables Mediterranean style.

Overall, a better approach to the problem of achieving high-quality Mediterranean architecture would be to avoid encouraging the “cutting and pasting” of elements from a list of exemplar buildings and, instead, encourage using these buildings to set the bar for what new buildings must match or surpass, but not copy, in terms of quality of design and architecture.

One of the simplest but best examples of the Mediterranean style that I can think to supply is a garden apartment building designed by Martin Hampton, of the same architectural firm that designed Coral Gables County Club and who did the original design study for what became The Biltmore.  Mr. Hampton was a master of the Mediterranean style and one of the few architects who worked for all the major Florida developers of the 1920’s.  This design is elegant and charming, but not overdone.  I picked this example because it is still conceivable today… no one should accuse me of selecting a very expensive building!

Mr. Hampton’s Garden Apartment House possesses nearly every character-defining feature of the Mediterranean style and is as effective on a corner as it is on an interior lot because of its varied plan. 

Key character-defining features of the Mediterranean style:

  • overall asymmetry (may have embedded areas of symmetry)
  • projecting and recessed bays
  • articulation (stepping/recessing external walls in plan and in section that promote a human scale by dividing the overall mass into smaller parts)
  • textured stucco accented by smooth stucco or stone details
  • prominent, ornate entrance
  • tower element(s)
  • varied roof types, heights and pitches (creating tiered elevations)
  • true, two-piece barrel tile
  • varied window and door types and configurations in asymmetrical rhythms (predominantly double casement windows/French doors)
  • combination of arched and square openings
  • coral rock or cast-stone elements
  • terracotta details (such as tile vents)
  • cast-iron work
  • cast ornament (such as wing walls, crests, elegant medallions, parapets, etc.)
  • colorful awnings (often striped or patterned)
  • other appropriate details tailored to the design (Solomonic columns, exposed rafter tails, pecky cypress accents, balconies, balustrades, chimney/bell tower, engravings, coping, loggia/arcade, etc.)
  • vivid Mediterranean paint color (not white or gray)
  • patio areas with large native trees (such as gumbo limbo or paradise) and azoteas (rooftop decks)

Up to now, the Board of Architects does not seem to heavily contemplate if a building is in the Mediterranean style before granting Mediterranean bonuses, even though Anderson sponsored a change to the ordinance in 2022 to ensure that buildings have to be Mediterranean to be awarded the Mediterranean bonus.  This change obviously did not work.  Case in point:  the Board of Architects approved Level 1 and 2 bonuses for 730 Coral Way on 3/9/2023.

Applicant’s 11/18/2022 Design Review Rendering for 730 Coral Way  (This rendering is one of the few available in the public record because the City did not require the plans to be scanned or submitted in digital form to the Board of Architects.)

This building was approved for the Level 1 and 2 Mediterranean bonuses despite lacking the key character-defining features of the Mediterranean style.  Some have dubbed this building style the “Boca Raton 2000.”  Note the lack of adequate articulation embodied in the foundational Coral Gables Mediterranean buildings such as The Biltmore and Fink Studio.  The long, uninterrupted columns on the front elevation are not true quoins (like The Biltmore has), and their extension above the roofline does not equate to the stylistic towers that are used on Coral Gables Mediterranean buildings.  The railings on the balconies are in the Regency style.  The overall plan for this building is symmetrical while Mediterranean buildings generally follow an asymmetrical plan to humanize the scale.  I do not think any reasonable person would describe this building as Mediterranean.  Even the development team describes it as classical in their presentation, yet it received the Mediterranean bonuses.

This is not a new issue.  At the November 14, 2023 Commission meeting, staff highlighted how Coral Gables has amended the Mediterranean Ordinance about 15 times since the 1980’s to try and solve this issue!  Even the major (and majorly expensive!) zoning code overhaul from 2018-2020 did not resolve this ongoing conundrum of how to produce high-quality Mediterranean buildings in the Gables, nor did the more recent initiative to “define Mediterranean as Mediterranean.”  The zoning code overhaul created a loophole for smaller parcels like this north of Biltmore Way to bypass approval from the Planning & Zoning Board and City Commission, so many residents are not even aware that it has been approved.   

A set number of the key character-defining features should be required.  Yes, just as residents are required to have a certain number of features to qualify for Coral Gables Cottage benefits, developers could also be required to have a certain number of these features on their buildings.  Imagine that.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the ideas proposed as part of the “enhancements” to the ordinance would likely be enhancements (such as conceptual review), but some of the other proposed changes are misguided, at best.  This could very easily turn into more gifts for developers with little benefit to the general public when the whole concept is to incentivize high-quality design to benefit the public. 

The current proposal is to retain all of the precedents (exemplars) currently in the code except the San Sebastian, even though, as I noted above, several of these buildings are not even true Mediterranean buildings and others are not the best examples.  The criteria to get the bonuses would also be reworked but not refined to promote a true Mediterranean aesthetic.  The proposal would only remove the San Sebastian from the list of recommended precedents and add La Palma at 116 Alhambra Circle, Hotel St. Michel at 162 Alcazar, Comber Hall at the Church of the Little Flower and the office building at 2312 Ponce de Leon.  I agree with these Coral Gables examples except for the office building at 2312 Ponce, but I stop there.  They go on to recommend adding the following precedents from elsewhere:

  • Miami Senior High School
  • Freedom Tower in Miami
  • U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (100-118 NE 1st Avenue) in Miami
  • Miami Beach City Hall
  • Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach
  • Casa Marina in Key West
  • Madison Square Garden in New York City (no longer extant)
  • Santa Barbara City Hall
  • The Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach
  • Cuban Telephone Company in Havana
  • National Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires

Two of these (Miami News Freedom Tower and Madison Square Garden) are riffs on the Giralda Tower, just like The Biltmore.  How many more times we do we need to see this feature?  And would they ever be able to match the beauty of The Biltmore?  It gets to the point where it takes away from how special The Biltmore is.  There is something to be said for creative, new architecture based on the past but that embraces the future.  Most of the others have two very bad aspects in common:  strong symmetry and long, uninterrupted columns.  Casa Marina and the Don Cesar are way too monolithic.  Santa Barbara City Hall is too wide, too bulky.  I would propose Palm Beach Town Hall as a superior example.  No Venetian-inspired examples are proposed (such as Ca’ d’Oro itself or even an American example such 312 Worth Avenue in Palm Beach).  No ancient examples are offered for inspiration (such as the Generalife in Spain).  No stone buildings are referenced (such as the Hacienda de Chiconcuac in Mexico).

I concur that an interesting solution for corner properties may be found with architect Tony Zink’s design at what is known today as Hotel St. Michel at 162 Alcazar Avenue.  Tower components rise at the corner and taper off to neighboring properties. 

Hotel St. Michel

Sadly, Tony Zink has largely been forgotten, but this building has not.  It is often cited as one of the “prettiest” buildings in downtown Coral Gables.  This solution has been utilized countless times around the nation, from the Snell Arcade in St. Petersburg, Florida to Ashland Springs Hotel in Ashland, Oregon!

George Fink’s Antilla Hotel (no longer extant) was a gem in North Ponce.

Everglades Club at 356 Worth Avenue in Palm Beach should also be considered when little setback can be achieved.

The Spanish Apartments (now known as Villa de Leon) at 16 Davis Road in Tampa is another outstanding example to consider.  One of the best.  Martin Hampton, Architect.

This all prompts the question: are beautiful Coral Gables Mediterranean buildings a thing of the past?  With the cost of construction today, will we ever see these types of buildings again?  Perhaps a better approach would be to focus on preserving the few quality buildings that are still extant from the golden era of Coral Gables and encourage new development to “go green”—that is—to construct contemporary buildings that embrace quality design in other ways.

“Starchitect” I. M. Pei’s novel addition at the Louvre.  It was something new, something fresh in old Paris.  The 70-foot glass pyramid originally appalled much of the public, but its revolutionary approach to enhancing the historic Louvre even more by contrasting it with a high-quality Postmodern addition has stood the test of time.

The Ballet Garage by Arquitectonica on Miami Beach demonstrates how historic architecture is successfully contrasted by, but also complemented by, “green architecture.”

I am not advocating for glass cubes/triangles in Coral Gables, but these novel approaches could stimulate new ideas that would contrast and enhance historic Mediterranean buildings while bringing new character to the City.  A classic case of the known vs. the unknown.  What we know is that we aren’t getting many high-quality, true Mediterranean buildings as of late.  What we don’t know is exactly how to resolve this once and for all (despite already amending the code at least 15 times).  Another thing we know is that developers seem to want to build tall or very wide, minimally ornamented buildings with overbearing columns for cost containment.  A slightly taller building may not necessarily be a bad thing, if the same building is significantly less wide.  Creative green architecture could mask these less “architectural” buildings that have been proliferating while also providing an urban benefit. 

In summary, high-quality design should be the end game, regardless of whether the building is Mediterranean or any other style.  The proposed changes should be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Board before anything is ratified by the City Commission.   The other key point is that buildings that are getting Mediterranean bonuses should actually be Mediterranean, and strong symmetry and long, uninterrupted columns should generally be avoided.  Finally, a separate but related possibility for Coral Gables to consider would be incentives for “green architecture.”

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15 thoughts on “Opinion: (Un)enhanced Mediterranean Design Requirements

  1. Thank you, Brett for your well researched article and thoughtful assessment of the failed Med Bonus. It should be eliminated, not amended.

    To answer Lou:

    At 16 stories and 190.6 ft, the 730 Coral Way building, sited on a tiny lot (15,461 sf), is taller than all buildings on Coral Way and Biltmore Way, between Anderson and Segovia, except for two that are of similar height on larger lots: Segovia Towers and Gables on the Green. It dwarfs the Avignon, its neighbor to the west; and is 40.6 feet taller than its neighbor to the south. It will replace an existing 4 story condo building.

    How could this happen? The up zoning of the Biltmore Section.
    The director of development services stated at a public meeting that nothing had changed in the zoning code in the Biltmore Section, North of Biltmore Way, as the reason why the City was unwilling to roll back any changes, as it had agreed to for South of Biltmore Way. Nothing could have been further than the truth. The decrease in minimum property size, from 20,000 sf minimum lot to 10,000 sf, provided additional height. This now creates pencil shaped high rises. The city manager Peter Iglesias and a member of the PZB, assured residents that no one would build a skinny pencil, so no need to worry about new developments in the Biltmore Section that could reach 190.6 ft., or even 150 ft. The zoning overhaul essentially “spot zoned” two properties sought by developers: 730 Coral Way and 719 Biltmore Way. While multiple meetings were held by City officials with developers and lobbyists, mailed notices to neighbors were not required–only a very small sign posted at the properties that most residents did not see.

  2. Thank you Mr. Gillis for such a well thought out piece. It was both informative and interesting.
    I appreciate picking up bits and pieces about the history of The City Beautiful.
    I look forward to future posts equally fascinating.

  3. This was a very enlightening piece! Thank you, Brett. On a separate note, can someone let me know the approved height/floors for the 730 Coral Way building?

  4. Ajit is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! So is the Train Supervisor. How tall are the pre 20TH century, Mediterranean (as in Southern Europe) buildings? The answer in Spain, France, Italy is probably only 5 stories max. Maybe only one (1) additional story for certain quality elements is acceptable, to avoid a BOX BUILDING, but not more. Repealing the Med Bonuses would solve the problem. Sad how Dems exploit the poverty issue & the GOP the immigration issue. Neither wishes to solve the problem. Likewise, sadly Gables politicians exploit the Development/ Med Bonus issue.

  5. Brett, Very well articulated examples of what a Mediterranean design of a different era looked like. Having lived in Palm Beach it was easy to notice that there are several buildings on Worth Avenue that are worthy of a worthy and true examples such as the Everglades club. No such building exceeds 3 to 4 stories low density , single unit buildings with a tower for effect.
    What is happening in Coral Gables, is a blatant abuse of discretion by the Board of Architects and City Commissioners. Most buildings approved for greater heights in the guise of Mediterranean bonuses should never have qualified for such an invasive approval.
    The policy of appointing the BOA board is flawed and needs very serious review. The city manager’s firing was attributable to his involvement in enabling development of such a nature .The Mobility Hub was a case in point that cost the city millions in soft costs while underestimating the real cost of building it. The encroachment of the Historic elements was never a consideration.
    Furthermore, granting of these bonuses helps developers circumvent the existing zoning laws, almost as if it is an entitlement. It also creates a precedent which is fodder for the city being sued if such bonus is denied,
    In view of this history of abuse of such a loophole to circumvent existing zoning laws it should be eliminated.

  6. Has anybody noticed that Coral Gables is nowhere close to the Mediterranean sea? Thus, shouldn’t we call our architecture style Fake-Mediterranean or something more true to what it actually is? OK, we are Gables, so let’s give it a classier name: Faux-Med. Note “faux” has a stylish French sound to it, so it fits our image.

  7. Thank you for your very well researched article. I appreciate the examples that you have given. You have provided food for thought to all.

  8. Thank you for your well written and researched article. I support keeping Coral Gables as a beautiful Mediterranean city.

  9. Thank you for sharing all of this information! Please submit your article to each commissioner. Let’s all write to the commissioners to improve this process and the historical board.

  10. The Med bonus and zoning code are a joke ripe for abuse by greedy filthy rich Billionaire developers, their lobbyist and our own planning and zoning board, commission who grant approvals. There should be no way 2 buy/assemble land at 4-5 story height prices and allowed a new building double in height. Not to mention the theft of alleys and public rights of way. Mr. Merrick, Fink would turn in their graves at sight of these modern wannabe Med buildings.

  11. I just want to know WHY is it that developers keep getting everything they want??? Residents have had enough!!!

  12. The Med Bonus is a gravy train for over-developers, their architects and attorneys, and for some politicians.

  13. Let’s face facts. The Med bonus is a pig. No matter what you say and try to spin, a pig with lipstick is still a pig.

    So, the answer is simple. Build quality buildings in keeping with the beautiful traditions of our City.

    Any talented architect/contractor can do it. Any sensible resident can see it. Any sensible Board of Architects, Planning and Zoning Board, and Commissioner should approve it.

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