The Battle for the Soul of Miracle Mile
The assessment of Coral Gables’ signature downtown business district from Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli could not have been more dire. “Miracle Mile is sick,” he said at a recent commission meeting, sounding a warning aimed at fellow commissioners and residents alike. “Have you counted the empty stores? Because Miracle Mile is in trouble, and we have to do something to help it.”
That help could come via a rewrite of the city’s zoning code, opening the door to construction of six-story hotels on the iconic Mile and triggering development of smaller mixed-use projects designed to attract residents and visitors. At stake is not only the survival of retailers, but also the entire look and feel of the four-block business district.
Yet while the mayor and the other four members of the commission near a final vote on the city’s new, 1,000-page zoning code, there is far from unanimity about what to do about the Mile. The debate has already become a flash point in what’s expected to be a heated contest for mayor early next year between Vice Mayor Vince Lago and Commissioner Pat Keon.
“It is not appropriate to have a six-story building on Miracle Mile,” said Lago, who insists that allowing buildings above three or four stories would imperil the city’s distinctive “small-town feel.” Lago, who announced his candidacy for mayor last year, added, “Height has never been a cure to our ills. What we need is more residential.”
Keon, who said she would formally announce her mayoral candidacy by the end of November, agrees that adding residences to the downtown area is key to revitalization. But she argues that opposition to six-story structures on the Mile is rooted in nostalgia for a past long gone. “There is so much misinformation,” says Keon, responding to fears that Miracle Mile could end up looking like a high-rise jungle. “How could a concrete canyon happen on a street with a heavily planted green median, sidewalks and shade canopy?… We know that to revitalize the Mile requires [putting] people in that space, to frequent those businesses.”
A $25 million streetscape project, completed in 2018, did not create the surge of pedestrian traffic on the Mile that many officials hoped to see. Then the pandemic struck. Shops and restaurants closed and vacancy rates shot up. “I don’t believe there is a magic bullet to what’s ailing Miracle Mile right now,” said Commissioner Michael Mena. “But every analysis I know of, from the Business Improvement District to the Chamber of Commerce, suggests that one of the keys is more people living in the area.”
As it now stands, putting up six-story buildings on Miracle Mile is currently possible under the existing city zoning code, last revised in 2007. In October 2018 the city commission approved what are called Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) to allow the real estate development firm Terranova to build a 120-room hotel designed by Arquitectonica on the corner of Miracle Mile at Ponce de Leon Boulevard. But the requirement to provide adequate on-site parking effectively scuttled the project.
To block projects like Terranova’s, Lago has proposed permitting remote parking while tweaking the formula that sets the permissible floor-area-to-height ratio. That change would encourage Mile property owners to add on to their buildings, but go no higher than three or four stories. “Allowing six stories would change our historic downtown and be incredibly detrimental,” said Lago.
Commissioner Jorge Fors, who joined Lago in voting against the Terranova project last year, says he has been hearing from many residents who recognize the importance of the zoning code vote. “Miracle Mile is a special street, and we have to be careful about the decisions we make there,” he said. “In an era of uncertainty, we should err on the side of being conservative. With Miracle Mile, we better make sure we get it right.”