A City Program That Requires Developers to Contribute Public Art to Coral Gables is Beginning to Bear Fruit
By Sabina Covo // Photo by Jon Braeley
It was a fairytale night. Families, friends, and city o cials gathered at dusk in Balboa Plaza, a triangular park just south of the Granada Golf Course at the intersection of Andalusia Avenue and De Soto Boulevard. A string of glimmering lights overhead lit the scene, while a small chamber orchestra of violins and cellos played classical music. At the base of a huge banyan tree sat the reason the crowd had gathered: A 30-foot oolitic stone sofa named “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” being dedicated to the public. Three women dressed as fairies with pointy ears sat on the stone couch, evoking the elfin magic of the evening.
At the December ceremony, City of Coral Gables officials accepted the transfer of ownership of the stone sculpture from MG Developer, the first donation of its kind under the Gables’ Public Art in Private Development program. A part of the city’s Art in Public Places efforts, the development program requires that any project with over one million dollars in construction cost contribute one percent of its investment to public art. The one percent donation is deposited in an art acquisition fund for public projects initiated by the city. Developers may also commission artwork and incorporate it into their projects, or donate art to the city’s public spaces, pending approval by the city’s volunteer Arts and Advisory Panel and the city commission.
“It is a fairly new program [created in 2007] which has been seeing more and more artwork now as part of recent new construction,” says Catherine Cathers, Arts & Culture Specialist for the city. “Sometimes the one percent donation from smaller projects is not enough to donate a piece of art or create one, so it goes to a fund that helps us put in place events like Basel in the Gables.” In other cases, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the developer can go beyond the basic requirement to create and install iconic public art.
“For us, it is being proactive about the redecoration of the city. Our contribution at Balboa Plaza was much more expensive but we were able to revive an area that has a rich history,” says Alirio Torrealba, CEO of MG Developer. The area around the park is known as Biltmore Square, and is the setting for a series of townhouses and low-rise luxury condominiums that MG Developer is completing. The result is a European-feeling neighborhood, consistent with the Gables aesthetic.
“I have learned that art humanizes spaces and is a way of enjoyment for people,” says Torrealba. “At this point, we are also planning a new piece of public art that will look like a big elegant carpet in the center of Balboa, with artists Behar and Marquardt.” Those artists – Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt – were the creators of the giant Midsummer Night’s Dream stone bench, which they describe as “an outdoor room” that “promotes a sense of personal ownership of the public realm.” Precisely the intent of public art.
While Torrealba is the leading edge of the new development-driven program, he is being followed by other large, mixed-use projects rising in the city. The biggest of these is The Plaza Coral Gables, a $550+ million development on seven acres adjacent to Ponce Circle. The multi-building design will surround George Merrick’s historic design-studio building along with public art in the open plaza. “The current plan – which is still under development – includes a monumental sculpture at the Ponce de Leon entrance to the project, surrounded by benches and shade trees, and a signature sculpture by the North Entrance fountain area,” said Carlos Beckmann, operations director for Agave Ponce, LLC, developers of The Plaza Coral Gables. The public art installation is set to be completed in late 2021; Beckmann says that, in the end, Agave Ponce will commit another $2.7 million to public art, in addition to the required one percent contribution, “putting this location on the artistic and cultural world map.”
Not far behind is the $300 million Gables Station project and the $172 million Paseo de la Riviera development, both on U.S. 1 and both being built by NP International (NPI). Brent Reynolds, CEO of NPI, has commissioned artist Blessing Hancock for one of the firm’s public art contributions. “There are two ways to get approval and one is to tie in the art with the community,” says Reynolds. “Gables Station artist Blessing Hancock actually interviewed the residents to get to know how they felt about the space. The interviews were integrated into the art pieces.” Reynolds says that at Paseo they want to find a piece that will create a conversational place for residents – as well as to draw people to the center courtyard of the project.
“It is the intention of the public art program to preserve the City’s artistic heritage, enhance its character and identity, and contribute to its economic development and tourism,” says Cathers. With more than $1.5 billion in new development now rising in the City Beautiful, there should be a substantial pool of funds to articulate that vision.
“The Balboa Plaza project was a perfect communion between what the city wanted and what I believe, that art is an essential part of life that makes you more sensitive to your surroundings,” says Torrealba, who has become a major supporter of the arts in Coral Gables. “To combine business and art is a beautiful thing.”