June Talk of the Town: Retail Rush, Camp Mahachee, and More

From a lengthy town hall to this summer’s urban sketch crawl, here’s the latest happenings in the Gables:

Town Hall: “A New Day in Coral Gables”

The meeting room at the Police and Fire Headquarters was packed the second Monday evening in May, filled with Coral Gables residents eagerly waiting to voice their opinions on the direction of the city at the behest of the Commission’s newest members, Commissioners Ariel Fernandez and Melissa Castro.

An estimated 150 attendees — made up of residents, police officers, city staff, and the remaining members of the Commission (Kirk Menendez, Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson, and Mayor Vince Lago) — participated in the lengthy town hall meeting.

Talk of the Town: Commissioners Castro and Fernandez standing at the podium in front of residents sitting inside the meeting room.
Commissioners Melissa Castro and Ariel Fernandez listened to residents’ concerns at the town hall meeting.

Commissioner Fernandez, who called the meeting, said it was “a great opportunity to hear from residents about the issues that are important to them… We’ve heard about them during the campaign, but this is an opportunity to ask staff questions directly and get answers as to what’s going on.”

City staff, including City Manager Peter Iglesias and Development Services Director Suramy Cabrera, were placed in the hot seat throughout the night with a few tense moments (and a couple of disdainful laughs and boos from the crowd). The concerns raised by residents covered a myriad of topics, from sidewalk repairs to transparency and greater public access. But two recurring subjects dominated the night: overdevelopment and the Mobility Hub.

Multiple residents spoke out about the city’s growing developments encroaching on their neighborhoods and creating secondary issues, such as a lack of available street parking and an increase in traffic. Attendees pointed out how some of the larger developments deviate from the architectural vision for the city. Questions were also raised about the Commission bending zoning codes to cater to developers. The overall message from most of the crowd: “We don’t want Coral Gables to turn into Brickell Avenue.”

Talk of the Town: Residents filled the chairs inside the meeting room.

Residents were also up in arms against the Mobility Hub, the city’s proposed parking garage and micro-mobility station planned to replace Parking Garage No. 1 at 245 Andalusia Avenue, directly behind the Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile. From criticizing the design to pointing out empty parking spaces in other downtown garages, many residents firmly voiced their criticism for the project. The funding was also put to the question, from the $2 million-plus spent on the design alone to the current $63 million price tag the project will ultimately cost.

For the most part, Fernandez and Castro listened to the residents, occasionally adding a glimpse into their perspectives on certain topics and pressing city staff for concrete answers. Castro emphasized her role as the residents’ advocate, stating that she will vote on issues based on their feedback. The crowd seemed optimistic with this dynamic, providing a round of applause to Fernandez’s statement: “It’s a new day in Coral Gables.”

The Retail Rush

With its Miracle Mile streetscape project long in the rearview mirror, Coral Gables is experiencing a retail occupancy that is the envy of other municipalities in Miami-Dade County.

According to the most recent Collier’s report, of the 2.5 million-square-feet of retail space in the Gables, only 1.3 percent is vacant, far less than the county average of 3.3 percent. Part of the reason is the surge in foot traffic. Last year, the number of visitors to Miracle Mile rose by 55 percent from the year before, from 431,587 in 2021 to 667,229.

Miracle Mile is not alone in its retail plentitude. The Shops at Merrick Park is welcoming a bevy of new specialty stores anxious to occupy the few remaining empty spaces. Arhaus, an artisan-crafted home furnishings store, will open shortly on the first level, followed by Coco Cigars and the Miami Royal Ballet Dance School.

And on the second level, Boisson (“a sophisticated sips retailer for those looking for an alternative to alcohol”) will also open, along with upscale women’s, children’s, and “sleepwear” retailer Splendid. Trendy women’s clothing vendor Shusha Boutique will join them on the third level near Nordstrom.

Of course, there is a price tag to accompany the up-trending occupancy. City-wide, Gables retailers paid average rents of 26 per- cent higher last year than the year before, with asking rents of $48 a square foot, up from $38 in 2021.

Books, Please

After nearly two years and more than $3 million in upgrades, the Coral Gables library has reopened. The iconic stone and glass structure at 3443 Segovia Street opened just two days after the annual Family Literacy Festival took place at the nearby Memorial Youth Center.

With more than 120,000 “materials” (books, videos, audio discs, etc.), the refurbished facility has new carpeting, expanded seating areas, technology booths in the teen areas, wireless upgrades, new and additional desktop computers, and renovated restrooms.

The temporary branch at 308 Miracle Mile was simultaneously closed, sending its 20,000 materials back to the main branch.

In Bloom Again

Talk of the Town: A Royalo Poinciana in bloom infront of the Biltmore Hotel.

This year marks the 86th annual Royal Poinciana Fiesta, a celebration of the blooming tree that has become synonymous with South Florida. While it is a native of Madagascar, the Royal Poinciana (named after Gov. Lonvellier de Poncy of the French West Indies) was probably first planted in Coconut Grove in the early 1900s — the oldest documented one was planted at The Kampong in 1917 by Marian Fairchild, wife of Dr. David Fairchild of Tropical Botanic Garden fame.

The annual festival celebrating the tree started in Miami in 1937, when Royal Poinciana Tree Day was proclaimed by then Mayor Robert R. Williams. The next year, it became the Poinciana Tree Pilgrimage to the largest tree in the county, which was in Kendall. The following year, it became Royal Poinciana Week, and by 1940 it had become the Annual Royal Poinciana Festival.

In the subsequent years, it was funded by the City of Miami, which changed the name to the Poinciana Fiesta in 1996. After the city declined to fund it any longer, the Tropical Flowering Tree Society took it over in 1999, and in 2018 the City of Coral Gables became a co-sponsor.

The Gables-based Tropical Tree Society, which formed in 1988, meets monthly at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. Their plans for this year’s festival (June 4 to 11) include cocktail parties, musical events, walking tours, a symposium, trolley tours, bike tours, and plantings. Go to tfts.org or royalp.org for details.

Fashion for a Cause

This past May saw the Biltmore Hotel turned into a fashion runway show with a humane purpose. The 2nd Annual Fashion for Freedom event, put on by the nonprofit Glory House Miami, raised money for survivors of human trafficking. “Our goal is that those who have been broken by sex exploitation will be restored to healthy mind, body, and spirit,” says Betty Lara, executive director of Glory House.

“What we do as a nonprofit organization is reaching, rescuing, and restoring survivors of human trafficking,” she says, including providing trauma therapy, counseling, medical care, life skills, vocational training, and financial assistance. The organization is also raising money for a facility that will provide a safe space for victims as they re-integrate into society.

“Human trafficking is a very real problem not only in our own backyard, but throughout the U.S. and the world. It is modern day slavery inflicting tremendous psychological, emotional, and physical damage on its victims,” says Lara. “These people need our help.”

For several hours, the 210 guests at the Fashion for Freedom event watched as models paraded in dresses and suits at the Biltmore’s International Center, raising more than $600,000 for the cause. Guest speakers for the event included DawnCheré Wilkerson, one of the pastors of the VOUS Church in Miami, who has 345,000 followers on Instagram. It is estimated that 27 million women, men, and children are currently enslaved and trafficked worldwide.

Garden Club to the Rescue

Back in 1945, when the then-named Girl Scouts of Dade County purchased an 11.5-acre campsite next to Matheson County Park (for $3,337 from cookie sales!), it was a native hardwood hammock. Three years later, it was dedicated to the aplomb of 7,000 people who attended, replete with shelters, meeting space, and cabins. Fast forward 75 years and what has happened to “Camp Mahachee” is what’s happened to countless South Florida natural environments: the invasion of alien species.

Now, the Coral Gables Garden Club has come to the rescue. In a three-phase project that began last October, the Garden Club spearheaded the clearing of several acres worth of invasive vines (phase one), the removal of dead wood and trash (phase two), and the planting of native trees (phase three). They have now added a pollinator garden to attract native butterflies. “It was a good project, and it energized our club,” says Susan Rodriguez, president of the Garden Club. “We have a lot of younger members now, thanks to this.”

Rodriguez said the project was initiated in 2022 when she asked the membership if they “had any great ideas for a project we could get behind.” She was contacted by Bill and Lynn Kerdyk Jr., who suggested they come to the rescue of Camp Mahachee. “They introduced me to Chelsea Wilkerson [CEO of Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida] and [we] talked about their vision to clean up the front entrance and get rid of the invasive vines… I got the Garden Club to donate time and money.”

With $25,000 in seed money (more than $150,000 was eventually raised), the group induced a small army of volunteers to help, ranging from City Commissioner Rhonda Anderson to Miami-Dade County environmental scientist James Duncan, plus (of course) scores of Girl Scouts.

The result is a small forest of 1,100 native trees, from the Gumbo Limbo to the Jamaican Caper. “They look fantastic, they look amazing,” says Rodriguez. They are enhanced by a temporary irrigation system set up by Duncan, and by three coral rock benches, one of which is dedicated to the Kerdyks.

Summer’s Urban Sketch Crawl

The Coral Gables Museum is exploring the city’s architecture and history through a new lens this summer with its Urban Sketch Crawl. The program, meant to replace the museum’s downtown walking tours during the summer hiatus, provides a weekday evening outing that will tour different parts of the city with an artistic element.

As the name suggests, the events will provide attendees the opportunity to learn about historic landmarks and notable sections of town while sketching them. Gianna Riccardi, the museum’s director of education and public programs, says there will be a variety of additional art aspects implemented, such as photography and watercolor painting, depending on the theme.

“We want people to see the beauty that’s all around them,” Riccardi says. “We talk about urbanism, architecture, and our envi- ronment, but it’s also about determining how we live in a space and how to be fully present. When we stop and look at something and appreciate the history of it … looking at the details and how it has aged, you get a better understanding of how it started and where it is now.”

In addition to tour guides providing historical context, the tour will also have art guides present to give pointers and creative direction.

Each tour, every other Wednesday, will explore a different theme:
June 14: Aragon Roundabout
June 28:
Along Miracle Mile
July 12: Art in Public Places
July 26: Back to the Beginning
August 9: Recent Renovations
August 23: Paist Buildings
September 6: Lush Landscapes

For more information, visit coralgablesmuseum.org.