Sue Kawalerski – Coral Gables Neighbors Association President

An Interview with Sue Kawalerski 

A broadcast journalist by trade, Sue Kawalerski has become a leading voice in The Gables for greater community participation in the decisions made at City Hall. As the acting chair of the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, she has been a staunch advocate for traffic reduction and alternate modes of transportation, including cycling (she is the manager of BIKE305). Prior to becoming active with the Riviera Neighborhood Association 12 years ago, Kawalerski was a news consultant for FOX Television Stations, president of TV People, Inc., and the news director for Fox, CBS, and NBC affiliated stations in Tampa, Miami, St. Louis, Dallas, and Buffalo. She is currently president of the 16,000-member Coral Gables Neighbors Association.

What lead to you first joining the Riviera Neighborhood Association (RNA)? 

I was traveling for work a lot [when I first moved here]. But when I came back to Coral Gables full time, I recognized that things were changing the neighborhoods. And what was changing the neighborhoods were these relatively massive projects. They were nowhere near as massive as today, but massive enough to interrupt the quality of life for the residents. 

Were there any projects that the RNA fought? 

The Mahi Waterway at US1 and South Alhambra was slated for a massive project at that time… There was enough interference being run by the neighbors and the association, so the developers backed off and it was never developed. That project would have absolutely overwhelmed the neighborhood. 

The RNA has since become the Coral Gables Neighbors Association. How did that happen? 

About three years ago we started getting a lot of inquiries from residents in other neighborhoods, specifically in the Biltmore section, the University section, and the North Gables section. We were the only organized [neighborhood] association of any credibility or longevity, so they called us and said, “Can you help us with our neighborhood too?” The more inquiries we got the more we said we’d better expand. 

What is the mission of the Coral Gables Neighbors Association? 

To ensure the quality of life that we have all come to enjoy, and why we moved here to begin with. 

What are the issues at stake? 

Traffic is obviously the biggest problem in the city, and development is one of the reasons that traffic keeps growing… And we want to make sure that the city maintains its Mediterranean integrity, what we came to live here for. We are a unique oasis in the middle of urbanization. We didn’t want to be urbanized, we wanted to be the oasis in the middle of urbanization. 

Why is that an issue today?

 We have found over the last eight years that there is a drive to urbanize even residential areas. The city [for example] thinks of the Riviera neighborhood as a second downtown opportunity. So, we are seeing massive structures around [Kerdyk] Park, for example, the Venera… [This] is a real sore spot for us because we fought it very heavily. We knew that it was not a residential property per se, but student housing – transient housing in the middle of a nice residential area…. We took all the documentation proving this was not for yuppies and young families to the City Commission. They told us we were full of it and that they knew better, and voted the project in. And guess what? It’s student housing.

drawing of Sue Kawalerski

What other developments did you oppose? 

The Paseo de la Riviera was the project that catalyzed the entire Riviera neighborhood. When residents found out that the property was going to go as high as 190 feet, on something zoned for 45 feet, and that there were no setbacks so it would loom over US1, and again intrude on residential streets and therefore public rights of way meant for walking and cycling, the residents united. Even though we had 400 people in commission chambers and standing outside protesting, all but one commissioner [Jeannett Slesnick] voted the project in.

Clearly you think the city commission does not vote the will of the residents. Why not? 

One can only surmise. Because if you are not for the residents, then who are you for? [For the Paseo protest] we went to a commissioner’s office to show him the map [of nearly 500 homeowners opposed]. We were aghast when he said, “I don’t care.” We asked, if you don’t care for the residents, then who are you for? He said, “I am for the good of Coral Gables.” Who, then, do you think is Coral Gables?

So, are you against development?

Absolutely not. We encourage development but development that is compatible with neighborhoods, compatible with the surrounding properties, and compatible with what Coral Gables is known for around the world, which is a Mediterranean style architecture.

What is your message to residents? 

We think there is going to be a point when we have elected officials who listen to us. Do we have that now? No. But will it happen next year? Maybe… Right now, we are pursuing people who will represent us. So, our message to the residents in Coral Gables is work with us. Listen to what we are telling you. We are on the good side. We are on the right side. So vote that way