Retail portion of Merrick Park seen as missing piece to growing international destination
By Catherine Lackner
When Coral Gables officials and civic leaders are asked about the impact of the Village of Merrick Park, "a rising tide lifts all boats" seems to be the expectation for the mixed-use project. But there are some caveats.
"In the most positive vein, we consider this an exciting moment in the city's life," said Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick. "It's the largest project since George Merrick built the initial buildings and the infrastructure of the city.
"It's going to provide exciting shopping and quality restaurants. It'll be a center of activity and a place for people to congregate. It will have office, retail and residential components, in the true village concept."
Because of the high-end nature to the Village of Merrick Park, where the retail component opens Friday, "Coral Gables will become one of the names on the windows of the best stores around the world," the mayor said. "When you go to Tiffany, the window will say 'Beverly Hills, Palm Beach, Coral Gables' and so on. If we are, as we think we are, a player in international outreach, this strengthens that."
When the giant Rouse project was proposed several years ago, some raised traffic and crime concerns, but those issues are being addressed, Mr. Slesnick said.
"Rouse has hired a substantial security force headed by one of our past police department majors, Rick Bannon. They speak the same language as our police department and seem to have been able to work closely together."
Some might see the Village of Merrick Park, looming just across the street from Coral Gables Senior High School, as almost too tempting to teens, whose social life often centers around malls.
"Coral Gables High School is just a few hundred feet away," the mayor conceded. "There's going to be substantial youthful traffic and that's going to be a challenge for the village and the city. It's not an easy issue. Youth have the same right as anyone to flow through public places and yet youths who want mischief will be attracted to the village. The city has to answer to parents and to the high school - in fact, Rouse has included the high school administration and the principal, Alex Martinez, in their planning. They don't, and I don't, assume all youths are up to trouble, but you have to be prepared."
"I think about it every day," said Lettie Bien, president & CEO of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of people are taking the 'woe is me' attitude. But I think this will be a great thing. I'm in the business of optimism."
Traffic and security kinks have been largely worked out, she said, and the character of the village will do much to mitigate its negative effects.
"People a lot smarter than me did all the studies and came up with ideas that are going to work," she said. "This is not Dadeland. It is intended to hit a totally different market. I can't imagine it's going to be so massively crowded. I've been to Bal Harbour and you can always find a place to park, even though they're in tighter quarters than Dadeland. The mom from Little Havana with four kids is not going to be shopping here. I want them to be busy enough to be successful, but a lot of this concern may be for nothing."
"I think it's going to be a huge economic asset to the tax base as well as a showcase for residents and patrons," said David Brown, Gables city manager. The tax levy will increase over the years as property values rise and the new Merrick Park employees may well come into the downtown business district to shop and eat, he said.
As for the traffic and crime concerns, "the city's been meeting with Rouse's security firm for many months now to anticipate all sorts of issues, from vehicular traffic to additional pedestrian traffic. We anticipate additional flows of traffic."
Rouse has donated $600,000 to be used for traffic-calming devices if they are necessary, he said. "We're ready to make adjustments as Rouse comes on line to protect our residential neighborhoods from intrusion."
"I'm excited about it," said Commissioner Chip Withers. He said had just been in an airport and heard someone say they had just come from Coral Gables.
"They said 'yeah, we thoroughly enjoyed the...' and I thought they would say the dining. But it was the galleries. Three years ago it was always the restaurants. Now it will be the shopping, the galleries and the restaurants. What this does adds another gem to our crown as a destination. This also solidifies our tax base for years to come. It shows the residents that city government is trying to build a downtown with an infrastructure that will ease the tax burden on residents."
"The value of the lease transaction is $42 million, which doesn't include the increase in property values around the area," said Cathy Swanson, the city's development director. Rouse will pay an annual property tax bill of $1.4 million-$1.6 million this year, she said, and that probably will escalate in the future.
"When we look at the economic impact, what it has done is further validated Coral Gables as a retail destination. Our challenge now is, how do we recycle the visitor who comes to the village and introduce them to other aspects of Coral Gables?'
"Merrick Park is certainly going to be a positive and will add prestige to our retail component," said Commissioner Bill Kerdyk Jr.
Mr. Kerdyk, who works in real estate, said land around the Village of Merrick Park was fetching about $20 a square foot before Rouse "and now is on the north side of $100" when sold. The area had been primarily industrial before the city decided to develop the underutilized equipment yard that now is home to the village.
"The negatives, if there are negatives, would be how the traffic is going to impact residential communities," Mr. Kerdyk said.
"There are a lot of unknowns," said Commissioner Ralph Cabrera. "Obviously I want them to succeed and I'm hopeful they've looked into the concerns with public safety and the traffic the mall will create. There can be some very unpleasant surprises but obviously I want the minimum."
The village, "is extremely close to residential neighborhoods, not only those west of the high school but also in the black section of our city near US 1. It's a unique challenge, 1,100 people going at all hours of the day and night. I'm excited but at the same time looking for potential challenges."
"The Village of Merrick Park, I think, will definitely provide a different type of shopping experience to Gables residents, but it will have its challenges," said Commissioner Maria Anderson. "It will bring additional traffic on our streets. It's been promised that it'll have a good economic effect on the city via permits and taxes they pay."
Ms. Anderson's main concern, she said, is Miracle Mile, the traditional shopping district.
"Miracle Mile is the heart of our city. It's a true shopping center historically and otherwise. That's where I'm going to be spending a lot of time and effort."
It'll take a year or more to see what the exact tenant mix will be at the Village of Merrick and maybe even longer to see its effect on the downtown business area, said Silvia Mestre, executive director of the Business Improvement District, which targets Miracle Mile and the blocks adjacent to it for upgrades and marketing.
Rouse, she said, "didn't put a mall in the middle of nowhere - they put it in a successful, thriving city with an established shopping district. The village really puts us on the map internationally as a retail destination, which will help attract tourists. We really have to see where we compete and where we have synergies."