January City Hall: Streetlights, Public Art, Fritz & Franz, and More

At its first January City Hall meeting, the City Commission:

NO SMALLER SIGNS JUST YET

Deferred an item that would have amended the City’s zoning code to reduce the size of sale signs on commercial properties, making them the same size as residential sales signs. Currently, signs in mixed-use commercial districts can be 250-square-inches, well above the 40-square-inches allowed for residential signs.

The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce argued that their members have not had time to determine how this change will affect property sales. Several commercial brokers said the smaller signs would make it hard to include all the info required by law. When asked by commercial real estate professionals “Why pick on us?” Commissioner Ariel Fernandez — who sponsored the resolution — responded that it was “about uniformity.”

Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson also asked for more time to go over the item’s potential compliance issues; Mayor Vince Lago added, “There needs to be a lot more discussion.” Ultimately, the Chamber agreed to host a meeting of real estate professionals and the Commission to discuss the issue before moving forward.

DON’T SWITCH OUT THE STREETLIGHTS

Voted 5-0 to host a joint meeting between the Historic Preservation Board and the Landmarks Advisory Board, along with residents, to discuss the replacement of the silver streetlights throughout the city. Citizens had complained that the poles were being replaced by smaller, black versions by FPL that did not resemble the city’s historic lighting. Many of these fiberglass poles being replaced are in bad shape, said Mayor Lago, warning against FPL pushback.

Commissioner Fernandez — who sponsored the resolution — said that while the fiberglass poles are not historic, “they are part of the historic look of the community,” and should not be replaced with something dissimilar. The details of the meeting will be publicized via the city’s newsletter and online.

LESS PARKING FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Voted 5-0 to amend the Zoning Code to reduce parking requirements for affordable housing located near a major transit stop. In July 2023, the State of Florida passed the Live Local Act to address the affordable housing crisis by authorizing developments — including high-rises greater than 40 stories — in mixed-use districts if at least 40 percent of the units are considered “affordable,” meaning the monthly rent or mortgage payments do not exceed 30 percent of the median adjusted gross annual income for average households.

On the other hand, the Commission voted 5-0 to approve a blank inventory list of city-owned property within Coral Gables that could be used for affordable housing, as required under the state’s Live Local Act. Assistant City Attorney Naomi Garcia said the list was blank because there are no city-owned sites appropriate for af- fordable housing, due to most of them being parks, retail storefronts, government buildings, historic monuments, or parking facilities.

TAKE DOWN THOSE SHUTTERS

Voted 5-0 to amend the city’s Zoning Code to prohibit window and hurricane shutters for those who leave them up after 30 days past the end of hurricane season. Commissioner Fernandez, who sponsored the ordinance, said its intent was to maintain “a look for our city” and avoid fire safety concerns. Residents will receive a warning first before being issued a fine.

YES (FOR NOW) TO A ST.PHILIP’S SCHOOL BUILDING

The Commission spent more than an hour discussing a request by St. Philip’s School to replace an existing house with a new pre-K building. Many residents complained the new building would increase traffic already encroaching on swales in front of their homes. “A solution has to be found… if they are going to continue to expand,” said Mayor Lago. The Commission voted to approve the building on first reading with the understanding that parking solutions be presented before the next Commission meeting.

PERMIT DEPARTMENT OVERHAUL

Listened to an update on the Development Services Department. Commissioner Castro, who owns a permit expediting business, took point on the issue due to her experience. She is currently the subject of an ongoing county Ethics Commission investigation to determine if she should be allowed to run her Coral Gables-based business while also overseeing the Development Services Department.

Castro said she and the department had discussed and implemented several new practices, including the use of iPads for members of the Board of Architects (BoA) to do immediate electronic reviews of plans, adding new staff to assist with plan routing and phone calls, providing standardized training for staff, implementing a new phone system to allow customers to receive a return phone call rather than sit on hold, automating the application process, and adding new tutorials online to help customers with the permitting process. (Sponsored by Commissioner Castro)

LOOKING FOR A CHRISTMAS BOOST
Discussed improving the Christmas decorations on Miracle Mile, which Commissioner Fernandez said were not appropriate in scale this year. “I think it’s important that Miracle Mile be highlighted going forward,” he said, adding that he was “not thrilled” by this year’s decorations.

The Business Improvement District had previously taken point on this project prior to its dissolution last year by the City Commission. This year, the City was solely responsible for the decorations, which the mayor called “a dry-run” for the future. The City spent $147,000 on the decorations, many handmade specifically for Coral Gables. (Sponsored by Commissioner Fernandez)

WHITE WAY LIGHTS COMING

Listened to an update on the arrival of the historic White Way Lights, which will be maintained by the city. There will likely be an oolite stone ring around the light base and biannual inspections to remove dust, dirt, debris, and soiling and to touch-up the paint as needed. (Sponsored by Mayor Lago)

Watch the first January City Hall meeting here.

January City Hall

At its second January City Hall meeting, the City Commission:

PUBLIC POETRY

Voted 5-0 to approve the poetry-based temporary public art activation “Dear Human,” with $10,000 from the Art in Public Places fund. The idea is to activate sculptures around the Gables with poetry prompts “that will invite everyday citizens to respond,” said Monica Peña, programs director of O, Miami, a poetry-based organization which partnered on the project with the Lowe Art Museum.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Listened to a presentation on city lighting from the Public Works Department and FPL. Coral Gables is home to about 3,100 lights, 2,500 of which are owned by FPL. At issue now is the replacement of silver fiberglass streetlights which, while not historic, lend character to the city, and are being replaced by standardized black lights that many residents do not want.

FPL does not offer the silver poles anymore since Coral Gables is the only city in Florida that uses them. While a final decision was not made on what the silver streetlights will be replaced with in historic neighborhoods — costs would run into the millions of collars — the replacements will continue in areas which already have black poles, or no lighting at all.

METROCONNECT VS FREEBEE

Listened to a presentation by Via on its MetroConnect micro-transit program with Miami-Dade County. Implemented in 2020, MetroConnect acts like Uber (which it is partnered with), connecting riders with drivers in cities like Cutler Bay, Kendall, and Dadeland. Riders can get free rides on the county’s dime, though the rides are limited to the approximate boundaries of the participating cities’ borders.

Within MetroConnect’s fleet are autonomous vehicles and ADA accessible vehicles for wheelchair users. Commissioners will consider Via as an alternative to the city’s current program with Freebee, which frequently has long wait times and a more limited range. (Sponsored by Commissioner Kirk Menendez)

GETTING PHIT

Listened to a presentation by PHIT America Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes physical activity and education in elementary school students. Ninety percent of children in the U.S. are not meeting the CDC’s standards of physical activity. PHIT America seeks to cure this “inactivity pandemic,” partly by creating PHIT Centers that include tennis, pickleball, track, and golf areas for children to use in schools or within the community. The Commission agreed to consider the opportunity, which would cost the city at least $250,000 per PHIT Center. (Sponsored by Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson)

WELL, WELL, WELL

Voted 5-0 to approve the temporary public art installation “The Water Below Us” in partnership with Blue Missions, a Miami-based nonprofit focused on water quality. Unanimously recommended by the Cultural Development Board, the Giralda Plaza installxfation will use $50,000 from the Art in Public Places fund. The 10-foot floating well is meant to be an educational tool as well as a work of art.

“The idea is to create an art installation that will draw attention towards the protection of our local water resources by providing information to locals that interact with the piece,” said Leslie Ramos, chief experience officer of Blue Missions. The sculpture will have an augmented reality component that “will take the viewers into [clean water] environments” and follow the journey of a drop of water through the water cycle. The piece will be up March 22 through the end of April.

THE ROAD MOST TRAVELED

Discussed adding a traffic circle to the intersection of Galiano St., Giralda Ave., and Merrick Way (at the end of Giralda Plaza by Graziano’s Market). Confusing markings and inadequate signage make drivers unsure of where to stop for traffic lights in an area that attracts many pedestrians and motorists. Mayor Vince Lago agreed that something had to be done, especially since there isn’t a good place for pedestrians to cross. (Sponsored by Commissioner Ariel Fernandez)

AMAZON PURCHASES AUDITED

Voted 5-0 to complete an audit of two years’ worth of Amazon purchases expensed by city staff that Commissioner Fernandez, who sponsored the item, believes are unnecessary. Among items of concern were energy drinks, kitchen utensils, and a clothing steamer. Expensed items all come with a memo explaining their necessity and are approved by department directors. The audit will take place over the next three months.

PUBLIC PUBLIX PROPERTY

Voted 5-0 on first reading to approve a new development for the Publix grocery store on LeJeune Rd. in downtown Coral Gables. The redesigned store will completely revamp the current building, a Publix since 1962. The development will be three stories tall and 66,000-square-feet. A remaining 20,000-square-feet will be used as a public park deeded to the City. The development will include a liquor store, sit-down café, and outdoor seating.

The mayor has been working with Publix to negotiate terms, including doubling the size of the park, for five years. “What you’re about to see right now is, in my opinion, going to transform the quality of life in our downtown,” said Mayor Lago. The item will return on second reading with changes made to reflect Commission requests, including more greenery for the rooftop parking lot.

FRITZ & FRANZ GETS A CHANCE

Voted 5-0 to negotiate with Fritz & Franz Bierhaus over the next three weeks to try to renew the restaurant’s lease. If a solution cannot be found, the City will proceed with a request for proposals from other candidates.

The conversation reached a crescendo when Commissioner Fernandez went on a tangent, accusing City Manager Peter Iglesias of telling him privately that he “only answers to three members of the Commission.” After a tense moment when Fernandez indicated Iglesias should “take the door,” Iglesias responded, “I don’t need to take the door because you can’t kick me out of here!” (Fernandez had tried to have Iglesias fired last year, but the item was shot down in a 3-2 vote.)

The conversations between the Commission and the public — many wearing “Keep Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables!!!” shirts — were much more genial, providing levity to what had become a hostile environment.

Watch the second January City Hall meeting here.

UPDATE: During the Feb. 13 meeting, the Commissioners voted 5-0 to authorize an amendment to Fritz & Franz Bierhaus’ new lease. There is currently an agreement in place on principle for terms at the market rate rent, which is at $50 per square foot, between the City and Fritz & Franz owner Harald Neuweg. “This is what a good deal looks like,” said Mayor Lago. “I’m all in favor of extending the five-year lease with this… market rate.”

Fritz & Franz; January City Hall