Project Redesign Sets New Standard for Resident Focus Influence in Future Coral Gables Development

Javier Baños

Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider

In the upcoming Coral Gables Commission Meeting slated for March 12, 2024, a development project known as Ponce Park Residences will take center stage for consideration under Agenda Items E-5 through E-10, with discussions scheduled to commence at 3:00 PM. Situated across Ponce Circle Park, it would cap the western end of the southern entrance to Downtown Coral Gables, at the opposite end of the polemic Plaza project. Ponce Park Residences may represent a watershed moment in Coral Gables’ urban evolution, potentially setting a precedent for future development endeavors while placing resident concerns at the forefront of decision-making processes.

This project, formerly met with vehement opposition from local activists and residents, particularly those residing south of University Drive, has undergone a remarkable transformation catalyzed by relentless grassroots activism. Beginning in 2020, residents banded together to oppose the then-proposed 16 stories with 179’ in height and 161 rental units project, which they feared would irrevocably alter the character of their neighborhoods and exacerbate existing traffic congestion woes. Through a tireless campaign of advocacy spanning three years, residents made their voices heard at various forums, from transportation advisory meetings to planning and zoning sessions, steadfastly opposing the project at every turn.

The culmination of these efforts came to fruition in the 2023 elections, which ushered in a new wave of political representation marked by a heightened sensitivity to resident concerns. In response to this shift in public sentiment, developer Allen Morris, a longstanding Coral Gables resident, embarked on a comprehensive reassessment of the project, signaling a departure from the status quo and a newfound commitment to community engagement, even if compelled by residents.

The project underwent a radical transformation, with the original concept of a towering 16-story edifice giving way to a more modest proposal comprising 57 residential units spread across nine stories, capped at a maximum height of 115 feet. However, perhaps the most significant departure from the original vision lies in the developer’s embrace of a collaborative approach, wherein community stakeholders were actively involved in shaping the project’s trajectory.

This paradigm shift involved the engagement of former State Representative Javier Fernandez, Esq., the Mayor of South Miami, a city known for its strong grassroots involvement in civic affairs. Mr. Fernandez navigated the complex terrain of community relations, ensuring that residents’ concerns were not only heard but actively incorporated into the project’s design and implementation.

Crucially, after concerns were voiced by the Planning and Zoning Board appointees of the new Commission, negotiations between the developer and neighborhood groups yielded tangible outcomes in the form of legally binding covenants aimed at safeguarding against future abuses and ensuring ongoing community oversight. These covenants, which mandate a supermajority vote for any height or density modifications exceeding 115 feet, underscore a renewed commitment to transparency and accountability in urban planning processes. This further underscores the potency derived from appointing individuals to influential boards who prioritize the best interests of residents.

While the project continues to encounter opposition from certain quarters, particularly regarding concerns over precedent-setting building heights and potential implications for the surrounding urban fabric, the overarching narrative remains one of empowerment and collaboration. By placing the interests of residents front and center in the decision-making process, Coral Gables is charting a course towards a more inclusive and equitable urban future, wherein community voices are not only heard but actively shape the trajectory of development.

The journey of Ponce Park Residences serves as a testament to the transformative power of grassroots activism and civic engagement. By heeding the voices of its residents and embracing a collaborative approach to urban development, Coral Gables is poised to emerge as a beacon of community-centered progress, setting a new standard for resident-focused influence in future development endeavors.

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13 thoughts on “Project Redesign Sets New Standard for Resident Focus Influence in Future Coral Gables Development

  1. I share Mr. Levite’s concern about the west turn from Ponce De Leon southbound onto University westbound.
    Thank you Javier Fernandez for confirming that the slip lane will NOT be eliminated.
    Thank you Karelia Martinez Carbonell for the information regarding the importance of our alleys. I think too many people in the City do not consider their importance in our City Beautiful. I trust that, the powers that be, recognize the alleys as a crucial feature for the sanitation and emergency byways that are important to maintaining a higher quality of life than is the norm in some other municipalities

  2. Which brings this conversation to the March 12th Commission meeting.
    The article does not mention the implication of vacating the public alley under items E5-E10 CASE FILE 23-6704-6709.

    Vacating a public alley [for the benefit of a private entity] is a key concession. Without the alley, the Ponce Park project is not viable. The code allows for four stories. The proposal asks for twice the height.

    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 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.]

    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.

    Coral Gables voters have the mechanism 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.

    This January, in accordance with the city’s historic preservation staff recommendation, the Historic Preservation Board denied the vacating of the alley. The preservation department cited “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.

    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.

  3. The Gables Insider propaganda continues. There is nothing new here. This is the way the system is intended to work and has been working for years. There is nothing groundbreaking here. This is how projects that are not as of right get approved everywhere. Developers make concessions and pay into public realm improvements to get buy in and support from neighboring residents. Part and parcel to this, development agreements and restrictive covenants are drafted. As much as this blog heralds the newfound strength of the vox populi, there is nothing revolutionary here. This is just cover fire for the “anti-development” majority to cast their votes and be free of the development sin their red meat masses so disdain. Congratulations to Mr. Morris and his team. This piece guarantees that the vote is a fait accompli. A long time eyesore on the Ponce de Leon corridor is to be replaced by a beautiful building.

  4. Mr. Levite: Thank your for comment. Please note that the proposal retains the slip lane from Ponce to University. The prior proposal did not. Since this was among the foremost concerns of residents, the redesigned project preserved the condition.

  5. Kudos to Morris. Less Height/ stories equals exclusivity aka increased property values. Too bad Codina Building across the street from the post office so tall. Don’t know why MEDITERRANEAN BONUSES are not ENTIRELY eliminated from our zoning laws? Seems some politicians lack valor.

  6. Any developer using city owned property (public right turn from Ponce south to university, alleys) for their personal enrichment should be made to pay a very heavy price $$. Has that occurred here? If it has not then this project should be STOPPED immediately no more giveaway favors at taxpayer expense.

  7. My concern is taking away the direct turn from southbound Ponce to University. This will seriously slow traffic as everyone will need to go through the intersection. City land like this shouldn’t be used for private construction.

  8. The problem with this is that we continue to allow zoning and more height. End of story. The brickell gables building continues. The building looks spectacular by the way. But I still can’t build a 3 or 4 story house; why do we allow the commercial developers to do as they please ? Stick to the rules.

  9. Mr. Santo – we elected Ariel & Melissa to speak for us, as we had not been heard for years! Their salary was that of an admin before this raise. I have no issues with it! Now, anyone can run for these seats without having to be of “privilege”. They can actually quit their jobs to become a Commissioner. Those dark days are gone.

  10. All this nickpincking aside…..NO MORE CONSTRUCTION, period. We are loosing our sunshine and our Coral Gables feel.

  11. It’s great to read about the residents’ concerns which is always most important. The politics and sagas are a backseat issue and therefore are secondary. Some things are of greater importance alike this article. Thank you Gables Insider!

  12. An unfortunate side effect of the loss of over 100 units, will cause the developer to price out many people who would like to live in new construction in Downtown Coral Gables. I imagine the 57 units will be larger but will cost much more to achieve the same financial returns for the project.

  13. I read a lot, in this newsletter, about “residents’ concerns were not only heard”, when covering development, or the future of city subsidized restaurants.

    I never read, in this newsletter, about about the residents’ concerns on Ariel Fernandez giving himself and his cronies a 100% salary increase, or on hiring a city manager without a proper vetting and interview process.

    This newsletter seems more and more like a speakerphone for Ariel Fernandez’s political agenda.

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