Mistaken zoning? Coral Gables takes first step to reverse allowing taller buildings in one area

City board votes to nix 190.5-foot — or 17 story — max heights between Biltmore Way, Valencia Avenue

A view of Coral Gables along the corner of Coral Way and Segovia Street (Google Maps)
A view of Coral Gables along the corner of Coral Way and Segovia Street (Google Maps)

Coral Gables is backtracking on a new development rule that allowed high-rise buildings in an mid- to low-rise area, saying it was not intentional.

Yet, the move to nix allowing 190.5-foot tall — or 17 story— buildings is not enough to placate residents who say the city is only doing a half-way fix. They allege other zoning mistakes remain that loosened development restrictions in certain areas. The situation has left residents who take pride in Coral Gables’ moniker as the “City Beautiful” questioning whether all this truly was unintentional.

“These people are very crafty, and they looked like they tried to correct an error,” said Enrique Bernal, who lives across the street from the affected area.

The Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Board unanimously voted on Wednesday to revert the heights of a roughly three-square-block district to the previously allowed 150-foot heights.

Courtesy of City of Coral Gables

Courtesy of City of Coral Gables

The area is from Biltmore Way south to Valencia Avenue and from Segovia Street west almost to Anderson Road. The tallest buildings in the area are the David William hotel condo and the Biltmore II Condominium, both 12 stories, with the rest two-story apartment buildings.

The difference in heights would have allowed multifamily and condominium projects to rise to roughly 17 stories.

The area is part of a bigger district known as the Biltmore Section that stretches another block north from Biltmore Way up to Coral Way, just south of the Granada Golf Course.

The issue stems from a zoning code overhaul commissioners approved on Feb. 6 that the city said was meant to be a technicality, making rules simpler and fixing inconsistencies.

But with that, the changes granted a Mediterranean Bonus of 40.5 feet in height for properties in the southern half of the Biltmore Section.

The bonus allows developers the extra height, as well as more density, in exchange for designs that pay homage to the city’s older and historic buildings. The late George Merrick, known as the original designer and planner of Coral Gables, designed Gables buildings in the 1920s in the Mediterranean style. The building bonus also is granted in exchange for amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

During the planning board meeting, city development services director Suramy Cabrera stopped short of calling the change a mistake, but said it was “not intentional.”

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The city also stopped short of reverting to other previous regulations in the southern half of the Biltmore Section, some of which allow bigger buildable area through an increase of floor area ratio (FAR).

Commissioner Rhonda Anderson, who sponsored the item to reverse the height allowance, did not endorse the change in FAR “because she does not want to open the city to potential lawsuits,” Cabrera told the board. Taking away some of the looser development regulations could expose the Gables to Bert J. Harris lawsuits, as the act provides private property rights protections.

Giving someone FAR but then taking it away could allow a “potential claim,” Anderson told The Real Deal.

As for the allowable height in the northern half of the Biltmore Section, residents say this also was mistakenly rezoned to allow 190.5-foot tall buildings. Cabrera told the board this was always the allowed height under the Mediterranean Bonus.

Anderson said the city received a letter from an attorney for condo owners in the northern half of the Biltmore Section expressing concerns over the loss of their property values.

To Bernal, this all seems like lobbyists for potential buyers and developers pressuring the city.

“The developers essentially see an opportunity to bring massive commercial-type buildings in this area,” he said, adding that the Mediterranean Bonus never before was allowed in multifamily districts.

Coral Gables has seen an influx of development in recent years, amid outcries that some of the large-scale projects do not fit with the city’s character.
The $500 million Life Time-branded mixed-use project spans 1.2 million square feet and 14 stories along U.S. 1. Completed in August, it has 495 luxury apartments, an 80,000-square-foot athletic resort, a 25,000-square-foot coworking space and retail.

Just this month, University of Miami booster John Ruiz floated a plan to develop a college football stadium in Coral Gables.

Yet, in August, the city planning board did reject The Allen Morris Company’s proposal for a mixed-use apartment tower, meaning the developer has to go back to the drawing board.

The board’s vote on Wednesday included a recommendation to the commission to take a look at heights in the northern half of the Biltmore Section.

The city in an emailed statement said some of the other changes that are part of the code revamp are “positive,” calling for more open space. Some of the other changes require developers to add more landscaped areas, a 10-foot setback from the front property line, and parking on the side instead of the front of the buildings.

The planning board’s vote to revert to the lower heights still needs final approval from the commission.