to carefully weigh but not halt new downtown developments
By Marilyn Bowden
Although members of the new Coral Gables City Commission promise to evaluate proposed projects more carefully with a view toward preserving the city's character, officials say development will not grind to a halt.
"The city commission has not taken a no-growth stand," said Cathy Swanson, city director of development. "They want to make certain the projects proposed are consistent with the city's image and scale. But there has been no edict to stop all development. On the contrary, good quality, properly scaled growth will continue."
Mayor Don Slesnick, who was elected in April along with two new commissioners on what some characterized as a wave of anti-growth sentiment, said the new commission merely wants to re-evaluate existing regulations to make certain that a project's impact is studied before it moves forward.
"Some of my critics allege that I'm listening too much to people living in past centuries - retirees who are out of touch with modern society," he said. "But that's not who talks to me about limiting size and height allowances. It's professionals who work downtown and own a home in Coral Gables, who came here to get away from overcrowding in downtown Miami."
Mr. Slesnick said the previous commission had already vetted most mixed-use projects slated to be the city's next wave of development.
These include a number of office developments already under way, such as the recently completed 355 Alhambra; 4000 Ponce, which recently topped off; Alhambra Towers, well into construction, and the Village of Merrick Park's office component.
Together these will add more than 600,000 square feet of class A space.
Hines Interest Partnership's project at 2525 Ponce de Leon, covering a city block, will also incorporate "a significant office component," said Vice President Michael Harrison.
"Basically we're doing a project that conformed to existing zoning," he said, "so we weren't required to go back before the city commission."
He said Hines plans to demolish part of an existing building that was formerly home to Coral Gables Federal Savings & Loan. The six-story portion of the building will be incorporated into the new project.
"We're doing the final preparations of construction documents for the new building," he said, "and expect to have a demolition permit in hand next week.
"That will clear us for starting construction on the new tower around Sept. 1."
Mr. Harrison said Regus Business Centres has signed for 45,000 square feet in the building.
The only announced project before the new commission, Mr. Slesnick said, is Starwood Urban Investment's plan for a mixed-use development at Miracle Mile and Aragon Avenue.
The Washington-based developer, which has been buying up blocks of Miracle Mile for two years, filed two plans for the site, said CEO John Richman.
Starwood would prefer a mixed-use project featuring a five-story retail and office structure fronting Miracle Mile and a 16-story retail, parking and luxury rental apartment building facing Aragon, he said.
Last week, however, Starwood announced it would proceed with its second option - a 16-story, 215,000-square-foot office building facing Miracle Mile - unless commissioners approve the mixed-used plan before year's end.
"We believe the more comprehensive design, which would bring a critically needed residential component to Miracle Mile, is the better choice," Mr. Richman said. "But we have an economic reality with regard to our investments in Coral Gables and therefore must begin to move forward with at least one of our plans."
He said individual commissioners have responded positively to the plan and the lack of progress is due to "an administrative delay."
Mr. Slesnick said Starwood Urban's proposal "may be the first one that this commission weighs in on. But I have had approaches from three or four other developers, so we haven't seen the whole iceberg yet."
Perhaps more urgent, he said, are public-private partnerships to develop three public parking sites along Andalusia Avenue.
"They were bid out at eight stories," he said, "but developers are lobbying for 12 stories. That's an issue we'll be looking at soon.
"There's a proven need for parking and we would like to move ahead with city-owned and -built garages as soon as possible. Other than that, I don't mind waiting."
The mayor said he's "fully in favor" of mixed-use projects that bring residents downtown.
"The question is height and mass," he said. "How much of our sky, our sun and our moon do we want to lose? A developer may make more money from a 16-story building. But if he can build eight stories and still make money, maybe citizens would prefer that."
Coral Gables now has a height limit of 13 floors, with an automatic three-story bonus for buildings of Mediterranean design.
Mr. Slesnick - who was chairman of the planning & zoning board when the ordinance creating the bonus floors was passed 12 years ago - said he thinks it's time to re-evaluate it.
"I love Mediterranean architecture," he said, "but we need to step back and determine whether there ought to be other determinations of scale beyond the style of architecture.
"There's some question as to whether 16 stories is good Mediterranean design anyway."