At its August meeting, the City Commission:
Voted 3-2, on first reading to move city elections from April to November, so that they will occur at the same time as national and state elections. The move will save the city $100,000 per election. It will also dramatically increase voter turnout, from the current 10 to 20 percent to between 70 and 80 percent. Vice Mayor Anderson called the vote a victory for democracy. Mayor Vince Lago cited a poll showing that 80 percent of residents wanted the change. Read the Mayor’s Miami Herald op-ed piece in support of moving city elections.
Said one citizen, “I’m for anything that improves voter turnout. The system is broken when you have 20 percent turnout.”The two commissioners who voted against it, Fernandez and Castro, were recently elected with one of the lowest voter turnouts in Coral Gables history, winning thanks to a small but dedicated constituency who turned out.
Voted 5-0 to strengthen the city’s ordinance to restrict construction at night, on weekends, and on holidays. Permits will be limited to public construction on streets that cannot be done during daylight hours. (Sponsored by Vice Mayor Anderson)
Failed to pass an amendment to the city’s zoning code that would have allowed additional height to buildings in the city’s Design & Innovation district (the area around Shops at Merrick Park) in exchange for park space. The current zoning requires that 10 percent of space be “open,” but allows it to be covered with arcades. The new zoning would have allowed builders to increase heights by increments of 13.5 feet above the current 97-foot limit, in exchange for five percent more open space for each increment. This would allow a maximum height of 137 feet.
The developers of the last open space in the area, at 4241 Aurora Street, showed their plan for a 137-foot building that would have provided a 5,000-square-foot park, with the additional height set back so as to not be visible from the street. For the ordinance to pass, at least four commissioners had to vote yes. Despite a sunshine meeting last year where residents said they wanted a park in the area, Commissioners Ariel Fernandez and Melissa Castro voted no, saying they were against any increase in height, even if it meant denying a public park for residents and building to the street line.
Voted 3-2 to approve the appointment of former city commissioner Chip Withers to the Planning & Zoning Board, at the request of Vice Mayor Anderson. Withers will replace Anderson’s previous appointment of Claudia Miro, who she wanted to replace due to a lack of attendance at board meetings (less than half). “You shouldn’t take the job if you can’t do it,” said Anderson.
Each city commissioner is allowed to appoint one member to the board, a nomination traditionally approved 5-0 by all the commissioners. Commissioner Fernandez fought the appointment, however, saying that Withers was pro-development — despite Withers’ long record of opposing large projects, such as Paseo on US-1 (he personally donated $10,000 to the lawyer fighting it). Withers defended himself for nearly half an hour, saying, “I was never labeled as someone who did not put citizens and residents first.” Commissioner Castro apologized to Withers but nonetheless voted to deny his appointment.
Listened to an update on the restoration of Burger Bob’s, the iconic diner on the Granada Golf Course. After much citizen input, the new look is retro and comfortable. “It’s a collaborative effort to make it friendly, something that you want to be there, time and time again with family and friends,” said Commissioner Menendez. Unfortunately, the project will not be completed until autumn 2024.
Listened to county building and traffic officials, who came to City Hall in response to a letter sent by Mayor Lago to County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, complaining that certain “county-owned assets within the City suffer from an ongoing lack of maintenance and have fallen into a state of disrepair that is unacceptable to our City’s admittedly high standards.”
These assets include street and bridge sections of Blue Road, Maynada Street, Le Jeune Road, and Old Cutler Road, which Mayor Lago wanted residents and business owners to understand were not City responsibilities. The letter pointed out that the county receives more than $112 million in tax dollars annually from the city. The county officials promised to accelerate repairs, resurfacing, and repainting of these sections of City streets.
Voted 5-0 to approve $191,228 in grants for cultural arts for some 42 organizations either based in Coral Gables or providing performances in Coral Gables. The grants contribute to 1,288 cultural events annually, bringing in total expenditures of $24.6 million by grantee organizations and audiences, as well as $935,904 in revenues to the city. Despite these returns, the city has not increased the dollar amount of such grants since 2019. The core recipients of the grants include Actors’ Playhouse, Coral Gables Art Cinema, Coral Gables Museum, GableStage, Montgomery Botanical Center, and Lowe Art Museum.
Voted 5-0 to allow the Margaux Early Childhood School at Temple Judea (on Granada Boulevard) to increase maximum student enrollment from 140 to 195 students, so long as the fire department determines that safety standards were met. “With a growing population, there is a need to provide additional educational options out there to families,” said Commissioner Menendez.