Coral Gables, Known for its Traditional Trappings, Pushes the Envelope of Change
When you think of the word innovation, high technology typically jumps to mind. Gadgets, gizmos, apps, nanobots, communication devices, blockchain currencies, etc. But innovation is not just about high-tech. It is a way of interacting with the world. Innovation is all about the new – imagining solutions that are ‘out of the box’ or ‘pushing the edge of the envelope.’ It can be something as simple as mulching Christmas trees rather than sending them to the landfill, or devising a creative way to slow traffic by installing raised pavers.
The identity of Coral Gables has always been tied to its founding vision as a city of old-world architecture, and as such its icons – the De Soto Fountain, City Hall, the Biltmore Hotel, the Venetian Pool, the Alhambra Water Tower – are cast in the Mediterranean mold. Yet the city, especially in recent years, has self-consciously pushed an innovative agenda. Former Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli set up an Innovation Council to advise the city on everything from education to transportation. Current Mayor Vince Lago has been a tireless advocate of green legislation, from requiring more environmentally friendly buildings to curbing the use of plastic bags. “Without innovation, we cannot become a world class city,” says Mayor Lago.
Innovation has not always had happy results. The boldly futuristic metal flower at the intersection of Segovia Street and Biltmore Way is still considered by most citizens to look like an out-of-place alien insect. When the glass-box office building on Alhambra just west of Ponce de Leon Boulevard was built, it caused such an uproar that legislation was passed to give height bonuses for new buildings in the Mediterranean style. Efforts to make the city more bicycle friendly have failed to win over residents who fear the loss of trees to bike paths. And the city’s effort to ban Styrofoam and other non-biodegradable plastics was overturned by the state.
Despite its disappointments and sometimes stutter steps forward, Coral Gables re- mains profoundly committed to innovation, especially compared with other municipalities. The city routinely wins national awards for its IT infrastructure, something which is by and large invisible, but which gives the city added capability to deal with everything from street crime to natural disasters. Its transportation solutions, from trolleys and scooters to roundabouts and the Freebee, has so far kept the downtown relatively free of the snarling traffic in places like South Beach and Brickell. And what was more innovative than letting restaurants install outdoor seating street-side during the pandemic?
From its educational resources for seniors, to the solar powered charging stations on park benches, Coral Gables strives to be cutting edge. The question is how far innovation should go, especially in the realm of public space in a city that loves its old-world charm. A key test in that balancing act between past and future is the new Mobility Hub. The concept is highly innovative, a building that can not only provide substantially more parking spaces downtown, but which can provide a central micro-mobility station, a link to the city’s trolley system, EV charging stations, even a port for delivery drones atop the building, itself a park in the sky with solar panels for shade. The building is also designed with 12-foot ceilings so it can be repurposed in the future as an office or residential building. But because it looks like a giant ice cube from the future, a “beautiful monster” as civic activist Maria Cruz calls it, there has been considerable pushback.
“Coral Gables is a city that is always on the balancing point between the past and the future,” says Vice Mayor Michael Mena. “While we are known as a city with a rich past, I think the vision for Coral Gables was always to evolve, and to continue with new styles of architecture in the downtown, for example.” It was Mena who led a Sunshine Meeting regarding the radical design of the mobility hub, comparing it to the way that European cities incorporate new design – like the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, or the so-called Gherkin Building in London’s financial district.
“I think there are ways to embrace the future without forsaking the past,” says Mena. “But we are absolutely an innovative city, both in the public and private realms. We have meetings with bureaucrats and elected officials from around the world that come to visit Coral Gables, and one of the things they are blown away by are the high-tech solutions we are implementing as a city government.” With that in mind, we will explore in this story some of the ways the Gables continues to push into the future, while remaining grounded in the elegance and civility of yesterday.
The Smart City
It may be surprising for some Gableites to learn that our historic city is at the forefront of the smart city movement, having earned national recognition for its innovative use of technology. The city has twice taken first place in the Open Cities Index, which measures how U.S. cities use data to better the lives of residents. Earlier this year, the city received the 2022 Smart City Innovation Excellence Award from the Smart Cities Council for being “a leader in applying technology to improve operational efficiencies, quality of life, public safety, and mobility.” Most recently, the city was selected as a participant in a U.S. Department of Energy project for “advanced intelligent traffic optimization.”
At the head of this push is Raimundo Rodulfo, the city’s Director of Information Technology, and his team at the Public Safety Building on Salzedo Street – where the city’s computer servers are located with double backup generators. “Innovation means, to me, improving quality of life,” says Rodulfo from his chair in front of an enormous white board outlining projects in progress for his department. “That means leveraging the technology of the moment to develop new solutions [and] maximizing our resources to help our citizens.”
The city’s current pet project, an AI-powered modular pole that does everything from analyzing air quality and pedestrian traffic to providing public Wi-Fi, is the first of its kind in the U.S. and custom designed by aerospace engineers for Coral Gables. Now in its fourth iteration, several modules have been attached to the hurricane wind resistant, black metal pole discretely rising from Alhambra Circle. Environmental sensors analyze weather patterns and air pollution, while traffic counters collect data on the number of vehicles and their speed as they pass by. The pole also connects with the city’s public Wi-Fi network to increase its range and bandwidth.
The data collected here, and from a growing cluster of cameras that survey the downtown, is made available for public perusal on the city’s Smart City Hub. This website platform allows users to better understand the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, for everything from planning where best to locate a store to when it would be easiest to find a table on Giralda Plaza. The Smart City Hub goes beyond those metrics, however, offering an astonishing amount of information about the city, things like public WiFi locations, EV charging sites, pet waste stations, and the location, height, health, and species of almost 40,000 trees in public spaces. It also shows bicycle routes, street light locations, trolley stops, and the latest traffic slowdowns and accidents via the WAZE app.
While gathering information is crucial to the success of the city and the well-being of residents and businesses, there are other initiatives that earned Coral Gables the first-place 2018 Digital Cities Award out of all cities in the nation with a population less than 75,000. Smart lights that save on energy and maintenance costs, drones that can assess water flow blockages and survey infrastructure, and artificial intelligence capabilities that produce better business reports are just some of the projects the city has or is implementing.
The Safe City
When Ed Hudak joined the Coral Gables Police Department 34 years ago at the dawn of the computer age, he could not have imagined the high-tech world of crime fighting he is now charged with managing. “And that technology changes every minute,” says Hudak, who worked his way through the ranks to become police chief in 2015. “The balancing act you have to do as CEO, or chief, is to see what technology can do… and make sure that your policies have safeguards in them to protect everybody’s First Amendment rights, and everybody’s civil rights.”
Hudak says he hears regularly from vendors hawking the next big thing. He is often skeptical. “Honestly, when vendors tell us they can forecast when things are about to happen – then we’re in precog territory,” he says, referring to the 2002 futuristic film “Minority Report,” in which three floating psychics, called Precognitives, are able to predict who will commit crimes, especially murders, before they happen. “I do not have three people sitting in a whirlpool down stairs that tell us what’s going to happen,” quips Hudak.
Having said that, the department’s arsenal of high-tech devices and resources continues to grow. Sometimes it’s the ability of police to use the city’s smart technology to help track criminals; the downtown’s web of cameras has allowed them to identify and arrest criminals, ranging from the thief who stole a giant teddy bear from The Grammercy to the graffiti “artists” who were desecrating buildings downtown. Other times it’s the acquisition of specific high-tech crime fighting tools for the force, such as robots, drones, or the BolaWrap 100, which fires an eight-foot tether to wrap up and restrain someone who is trying to flee or harm others (or themselves).
One of the latest additions to the department is a $1.2 million mobile command vehicle that can run the police and fire departments if all else fails. “Everything is self-contained,” says Hudak. “If we were to lose our main 911 center, and our backup 911 center, we could run the city’s entire police and fire operations from this [vehicle] via satellite. If you call the regular emergency numbers the phones would ring here. Everything is computerized.”
Another recent addition is facial recognition technology. The city has a contract with Clearview AI, a company that can search through databases of billons of images posted to the internet to look for a match and help identify a crime suspect. “Clear-view AI gives us the ability, along with other platforms, to check all sorts of social media stuff to find out who we’re looking for,” says Hudak. The city also has a “geo fence” of Automated License Plate Readers, with 32 fixed cameras taking pictures of the license plates of every car entering or leaving the city, along with two mobile trailers and three squad cars with ALPR units.
The use of such photo recognition technologies is not without controversy. University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin appeared before the city commission in September to urge the city not to renew its contract with Clearview AI, calling the services the firm provides “Orwellian.” (The contract was approved by a 5-0 commission vote). At least one citizen is suing the city for its use of plate readers, calling them violations of his constitutional right to privacy (see story pg. 22).
Hudak believes that the benefits of high-tech surveillance tools far outweigh the risk – as does technology in general, like the city’s communication system that allows officers to respond to the scene of a crime – or to an emergency anywhere in the city – in just three minutes on average. “Following or surveilling just for the heck of it is not something we are going to do. We are not creating a Big Brother-is-watching type of thing,” says Hudak. “If people don’t see something, say something, we don’t know it happens… We will never acquiesce to artificial intelligence telling us how to do our jobs. We use it. That’s it.”
The Healthy City
The maintenance of personal health is paramount to quality of life, and Coral Gables has health institutions that are leaders in new technologies. UM’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, for example, with facilities on south Ponce de Leon Boulevard (and downtown Miami) is ranked as the number one eye hospital in the nation and makes extensive use of laser-based devices. The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, also with facilities on south Ponce de Leon Boulevard (and downtown Miami), is a leader in the use of precision medicine that targets individual genetic markers to address abnormalities in a patient’s cells. Baptist Health, headquartered in Coral Gables, is a leader in telemedicine, with a “Care on Demand” system that provides immediate virtual access to qualified doctors and experts anywhere from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
The city itself is laden with stand-alone health care facilities that provide an array of innovative health care options. Within the city are storefront operators of oxygen baths (where you are immersed in an oxygen-rich environment), cryo therapy (where you are briefly taken to sub-zero temperatures), and IV drip facilities (where you are infused with concentrated vitamins).
Among the innovations at the city’s major health institutions, Baptist Health’s Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute (a 49,000 square foot facility in Coral Gables) is the first institution in Miami-Dade County to invest in the Mako Robotic-Arm Assisted Technology. This technology is used by surgeons to evaluate bone structure, disease severity, joint alignment, and the surrounding bone and tissues. “Robotic knee replacement surgery is a big advancement in the field of joint replacement because it allows us to personalize the surgery,” explains Dr. Juan Carlos Suarez, an expert in knee and hip replacements. Using robotics, surgeons can determine optimal size, placement, and alignment of an implant while performing partial and full knee replacements, beginning with a CT scan that creates 3D images of the patient’s unique anatomy. For the patient, this means preserving soft tissue, saving healthy bones, and a quicker recovery.
Baptist also offers innovative concierge healthcare programs for busy executives, where comprehensive diagnostics can be combined in single day sessions. At Doctor’s Hospital, a Baptist facility on University Drive, the epidemiologists were among the first to use advanced therapies for curing Covid, including convalescent plasma and mononuclear antibodies.
At Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, which is the region’s only healthcare system exclusively for children (and just outside the city), research is being conducted on revolutionary technology for incisionless treatment of brain tumors. Nicklaus physicians now use focused ultrasound to destroy tumors in the brain, guided by Magnetic Resonance (MR) for precise targeting. So far, five patients have successfully undergone MR-guided focused ultrasounds at Nicklaus, the first in the world to perform this procedure with children.
Another innovative technology at Nicklaus is the use of “mixed reality” to plan complex heart surgery. “We create a 3D-printed heart model that enables the team to feel, cut, and sew an exact replica of [a heart] to plan this complicated surgery,” says Dr. Robert Hannan, Director of the Cardiovascular Surgery Advanced Products Laboratory. Using Microsoft HoloLens2 technology, surgeons can also see 3D holograms of the patient’s heart to help plan the surgery. “This cutting-edge technology helps us plan a challenging operation, enabling us to reduce the operative trauma for our patient,” says Dr. Redmond Burke, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery. Nicklaus Children’s Hospital is also now offering groundbreaking immune effector cell therapy for children and young adults with leukemia and lymphoma.
The University of Miami Health System, meanwhile, is South Florida’s only university-based medical system with opportunities for advanced research. “We are dedicated to exploring the latest discoveries in the laboratory and accelerating the most promising therapies from the lab,” says Dr. Dipen J. Parekh, who is also director of robotic surgery. Parekh was the first in the nation to use 3D printing technology to create a kidney model for surgery preparation. Other researchers at UM include MDs like Dr. Joshua Hare, who has developed a line of stem cells to repair dead heart tissue in patients who suffered heart attacks, and Dr. Camillo Ricordi, Director of the Cell Transplant Program at the UM Miller School of Medicine, who is conducting a ten-year trial of cell transplants that could cure Type 1 diabetes.
It’s no secret that Coral Gables takes its greenery seriously, with one of the most advanced canopy protection and enhancement programs in the nation (see story on pg. 36). That sensibility extends to a variety of other sustainability initiatives, all designed to make the Gables as environmentally resilient as possible. Among these efforts is the city’s current aspiration to be certified as a LEED city (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), aiming for the LEED Gold standard. This certification looks at city programs, environmentalism, quality of life, and public safety.
The city also provides opportunities for citizens and businesses to get involved in sustainability and environmental activism. One of those city programs is Keep Coral Gables Beautiful, led by Matt Anderson and Solanch Lopez, the Co-Executive Directors of the two-year-old program (in addition to their respective positions as Resiliency and Sustainability Manager and Assistant to the City Manager). Keep Coral Gables Beautiful aims to engage the community with volunteer initiatives that have ranged from Plogging at Matheson (where 33 trash-picking joggers collected 165 pounds of trash from coastal bike trails), to the Red Mangrove Propagation Project (where volunteers planted 1,300 mangrove seedlings in 20 tubs of dirt on the edge of the Granada Golf Course.)
Among the city’s most popular sustainability events is the bi-annual collection of hazardous household and electronic waste at City Hall. The most recent of these in April collected over 365,000 pounds of toxic trash. In other bi-annual collection drives, 1,280 pounds of prescription drugs and 619 pounds of batteries have been collected and safely disposed. Earlier in the year, the Christmas tree recycling program turned more than 4,500 trees into mulch for public spaces.
“We are excited to see how the community has embraced Keep Coral Gables Beautiful and how much it has grown in just two years,” says Lopez. “We will continue to bring in new programs and events that will promote environmental sustainability and educate the community to take action every day to reduce litter from our open spaces and waterways and improve recycling efforts.” Among its recycling efforts, the city now requires that all cardboard boxes be broken down and put into recycling bins, rather than discarded as garbage.
Coral Gables also makes a strong effort in “green” building, requiring that any commercial structure of 20,000 square feet or larger meet LEED Silver standards. Energy efficiency is also constantly updated in city buildings: lights are changed to LED, motion sensors are installed to conserve electricity, and air conditioning is upgraded to high efficiency units. So far, in older buildings that have been retrofitted since 2013, energy consumption has been reduced by 24 percent per square foot and water consumption by 41 percent per square foot.
Water quality is another area where innovation helps. The Gables has more than 42 miles of coastline and waterways, 35 miles of which are the Coral Gables Waterway itself. To improve the health of Biscayne Bay, the city is conducting studies on ways to reduce nutrient intake that negatively impacts water quality. One strategy is the city’s (and county’s) fertilizer ordinance, which bans nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizer during the rainy summer months, preventing the chemicals from running into the water. The city is also testing floating gardens and sponges to absorb chemical waste before it enters the waterway, as well as baskets and grates in city street drains to collect waste before it heads downriver.
Alternative transportation is another way that Coral Gables contributes to sustainability, helping reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by taking cars off the road. The trolley service, which has well over one million riders every year, has now expanded to include Saturday services. Freebee “cabs,” which can be requested via a mobile app, move people around the center of the city without the use of their cars. When cars are used, electric vehicles (EVs) are encouraged, with city ordinances now requiring mini- mal numbers of EV recharging stations in new developments; 12 percent of the city’s fleet of cars is already electric, and electric scooters and bike racks are also scattered throughout the city.
Coral Gables also strives to incentivize businesses to take on sustainability efforts themselves. For those interested in becoming more environmentally friendly, the city offers free resources and recommendations. So far, seven businesses have been awarded with a Green Business Certification that was created by the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the city. “We are endeavoring to create a more sustainable business community, for current companies and to attract future innovators and founders,” says Chamber CEO and President Mark Trowbridge.
Silicon Valley has Stanford. New York City has NYU and Columbia. Boston has Harvard and MIT. It seems that all the major technological outposts in the United States have at least one university that drives creativity and innovation. But is that the case with Coral Gables?
If you ask the leaders of innovation at the University of Miami, the answer will be a resounding “yes.” The university is so committe to exploring the latest approaches to education that it even has a vice provost of innovation, Dr. Norma Kenyon, PhD, who is also chief innovation officer for the Miller School of Medicine. “We have terrific research in key areas,” she says. “And avenues to learn entrepreneurship and turn your ideas into a business.”
The ‘Cane Angel Network and The Launch Pad are just two of the resources helping the UM community launch creative start-ups and projects. Through investing and consulting, both have helped UM-connected companies like Salty Donut, Novo Bank, and HealthSnap pursue their ideas. “Our job is to identify those early-stage start-ups and help those companies that have great ideas achieve what they want,” says Jeff Camp, managing director of the ‘Cane Angel Network.
Brian Breslin, director of The Launch Pad, echoes Camp’s remarks, and believes that start-ups need a little bit of help to execute their ideas and maximize their positive effect on the community. “Our goal is to help people cut through all the jungle of the business world to pursue their ideas… Then they create jobs for people, and you have this ripple effect of economic development coming from start-ups and entrepreneurship,” he says.
The tools used to educate students are also becoming more creative. “When I look at other universities and compare, the University of Miami is really ahead of the curve when it comes to exciting innovations,” says Kim Grinfeder, director of UM’s interactive media program and leader of its XR Initiative. Launched in 2018, the XR (extended reality) initiative uses a combination of augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR) to provide students, faculty, and researchers with tools to explore inventive solutions in their fields. These include the use, for example, of XR headsets that allow architecture and engineering students to design in virtual space.
Currently, the XR Initiative extends to more than 30 student and faculty-led projects, including using XR technologies to educate students about medical conditions, historical sites, and climate change. “If you’re a student here, you have the opportunity to work with some really forthcoming technologies,” says Grinfeder. “It feels a bit like teaching at Hogwarts.”
In a city as educated as Coral Gables (where two-thirds of adults hold a college degree, and half of those another, higher degree) innovative learning goes beyond college students. In the area of adult education, the city is exemplary. At the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (which happens to be on the UM campus), adults 50 and older can take classes in anything from Tai Chi, Western Art, and Classic British Literature to Acrylic Painting, Basic Portuguese, and Constitutional Law; some 350 classes are offered each year. At the downtown Adult Activity Center across from The Palace senior community on Andalusia (which itself offers classes in Yiddish and Improv), programs range from Line Dancing and Knitting, Crochet & Embroidery to Brain Gym and Barre Intensity Classes.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, the War Memorial Youth Center hosts an outdoor scholastic book fair as part of its Gables Family Literacy Festival in May, while the Community Recreation Department is working to expand its Little Free Library kiosks in parks citywide. Four have been installed so far, with $1,000 sponsorship packages available to place them in any park citywide. Innovative curriculum pops up in schools both public and private as well, from the magnet Academy of Finance at Coral Gables Senior High School to classes in robotics for K-8 classes at Gulliver Academy.
One of the most innovative educational programs is the Growing Beyond Earth project sponsored by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, part of their Fairchild Challenge competition to encourage young “citizen scientists” nationwide. Growing Beyond Earth (GBE) supplies students with plant habitats analogous to the plant growing equipment aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Fairchild and NASA scientists train teachers to conduct in-classroom GBE experiments so that students can then share experimental data online with NASA.
In many ways, the city’s urgency to push into the future with new ideas is a top-down phenomenon. Starting with the mayor and city commission there is an underlying recognition that the city must keep moving forward to stay ahead of the curve. The city’s current mayor, Vince Lago, has a long record of launching legislation that is proactive in areas ranging from environmental stewardship to transportation alternatives. Among his initiatives as city commissioner, then vice mayor, now mayor, Lago has pushed for solar power incentives, electric vehicles and charging stations, LEED building ordinances, environmental protections, electronic permitting, and expanded trolley service.
“What you are seeing now is a true investment in innovation, and by investment, I mean a financial investment,” says Lago. “We are spending millions of dollars to ramp up our electronic permitting system which is going to be game changer. That is critically important because we have heard [complaints] for years. We need to find a way, without bending our standards, to make it as easy to get permits as expeditiously as possible.”
That online permitting process is expected to be in place by the beginning of next year, according to the man charged with implementing it, City Manager Peter Iglesias. Permitting is, in fact, just one element of a multi-million dollar enterprise software system that will horizontally integrate all of the city’s departments – police, fire, parks & recreation, public works, development services, finance, etc. “The technology is expensive, but once you have the platform you can upgrade it continually. And it will transform city services,” says Iglesias.
For the perennially painful permitting process, once you have online permitting, “you are going to have accountability,” says Lago. “It will allow people to access their permits immediately. They are going to know where they stand. If it’s the city’s fault, it’s the city’s fault. If it’s the architect, engineer, developer, or city resident, they will know that, and be able to track the permit’s progress in real time… there is no reason it should take a year, or even six months, to get a permit.”
A second major advance, expected as early as the end of summer, is a relaunching of the city’s website, which is currently information rich but difficult to navigate. Here the city has invested in the same software (Drupal DXP) currently used by both Tesla and NASA. “From a technology point of view, it is probably the top website [design] in the world right now,” says Iglesias. Among its features, the website will have an artificial intelligence component to improve responses to citizen inquiries as time goes on.
The city’s top-down approach is not limited to software platforms, though technology remains a key component. The city’s economic development department is also aggressive in its efforts to help the small business sector that makes up the bulk of the local economy. “We are working hard to make our businesses more efficient,” says Juilan Perez, director of the city’s economic development department. “We have to make our businesses more efficient and resilient because the world is constantly changing.”
During the Covid shutdown, Perez and his colleagues discovered that a large percentage of small businesses had little idea of how to position and market themselves online, so they partnered with Google to launch a series of workshops to train them in the use of digital platforms. On a more bricks-and-mortar level, the city encourages small business growth with pop-up programs and educational panels on retail trends, such as returning to hand-made, artisanal products that are now in demand. Retailers also have access to real time data, such as pedestrian traffic patterns that can reveal the impact of window displays. “We are not the only city that does these sorts of things, but we are very innovative in our approach to retailing,” says the city’s retail strategist Francesca Valdes.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the city government’s steadfast drive to in- novate than its planned Mobility Hub, now on hold waiting for construction prices to come down. A gleaming, 10-story structure that will literally glow at night, the Mobility Hub is designed for the future, with solar panels above its rooftop park, drone landing pads, facilities for autonomous vehicles, EV charging stations, and a ground floor designed to accommodate micro mobility alternative transportation.
“Change is always difficult, but once you make the change you won’t know how you did without it,” says Iglesias. “Everything we are doing is world class. We are not taking any half measures. If you make a mistake in technology, it goes obsolete. We are working at a very high level, much higher than any city of our size.”