Talk of the Town in May: Autism Awareness, Bonnie’s Battle, and More

Flying the Flag

April was Autism Awareness Month, and the Coral Gables community made the most of it. Events included the launch of the “Huemans of Miami” exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum, a Coral Gables Chamber breakfast on autism, an autism awareness caravan of some 40 vehicles, the announcement of new classrooms serving students with autism, and the raising of an Autism Acceptance flag at City Hall.

Autism Acceptance flag hanging outside City Hall.

“It has been an amazing month,” said Maria Palacio, the founder and president of the Crystal Academy. “Before, when people started talking about autism awareness, it was a walk here and there. Now, it’s a caravan, a flag in the city, public places [such as parks] that are autism-friendly…. We are now moving from awareness to inclusion.”

Palacio, a long-time advocate for incorporating neurodiverse individuals into the workforce, says the need is greater than ever. Whereas in 2004, one in every 150 Americans was diagnosed with autism, that number has now reached one in 36. Programs to help these individuals join the workforce now include the Miami-Dade public school system’s Project Victory. It places students with autism as interns in area businesses. The Gables’ city government already has a program for such interns.

Palacio’s latest challenge is to find a new home for the Crystal Academy. It currently resides in space provided by the St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church. The church land has been purchased by developers and will be demolished if the city commission rezones the property (see following story).

Bonnie’s Battle Moves to Court

Bonnie Bolton says she is not done yet in her fight to save The Garden of Our Lord from being uprooted and replaced by a nine-story condominium project.

In a 26-page petition filed April 13 with the Appellate Division of Miami-Dade Circuit Court by attorney David Winker, Bolton says the city violated due process in March when the city commission unanimously affirmed the Historic Preservation Department’s decision not to declare the garden historic. The petition asks the court to quash the commission’s decision.

In seeking a judicial review, the petition asks the court to block any efforts by the developer to demolish the garden. It is located at 110 Phoenetia Avenue or the adjacent St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church. “The garden is a memorial to American war heroes,” said Bolton. “They didn’t give up when things got tough. So, I can’t give up.”

Bolton is a language teacher who lives down the street from the garden. She decided to follow the example of her mother, pioneer feminist Roxcy Bolton into community activism after developer Sergio Pino’s Century Homebuilders Group bought the 1.5-acre property from St. James for $9.75 million in 2021.

Bonnie Bolton at St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church.

According to plans submitted to the city, Pino’s project would include 177 condos, 16 ground floor live-work units, a “rooftop amenities deck,” and more than 300 parking spaces. The project also includes constructing a new home for Crystal Academy, a private school for children with autism that now uses the church offices for classrooms and the open space adjacent to the garden. Pino’s condo project would require a zoning change from religious/institutional to mixed use.

In July 2022, Bolton filed a 130-page application seeking historic designation, arguing that the garden, opened in 1951, was a burial ground, a botanical treasure of plants mentioned in the Bible, a repository of plaques commemorating military and civic heroes, and a key component of the “green corridor” that runs from East Ponce de Leon Boulevard to the Douglas Entrance. But the nine-member Preservation Board and the city commission said no.

In an email, City Attorney Cristina Suarez said “the decision not to designate the property historic was supported by competent, substantial evidence. Should the court order the city to file a response, the city will respond to the petition accordingly.” Pino and Century Homebuilders did not respond to an email request for comment. – Mike Clary 

Sanctuary Update

It has been one year now since Coral Gables attorney and preservationist Mike Eidson launched his ambitious Sanctuary of the Arts project, transforming the historic 1942 Church of Christ Scientist building across from City Hall into a 314-seat performing arts auditorium, complete with an expanded stage.

Since then, says Principal Managing Director Rafi Maldonado-Lopez, the Sanctuary has produced more than 40 concerts and events that have collectively been attended by more than 25,000 people. “Can you believe that?” asks Maldonado-Lopez. “[Everything] is fully operating now and surpassing all our expectations and goals with regards to programming and outreach.”

Founder Mike Eidson and Managing Editor Rafi Maldonado-Lopez

Among the performances that have been staged are ones by the Miami City Ballet, Dance NOW, the New Canon Chamber Collective, Cuban Classical Ballet, St. Carlos Institute, Peter London Global Dance, and Joshua Bell. “So many more have graced us with their talents on stage,” says the managing director, including most recently a performance by the chamber ensemble of London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

This month, the auditorium will hold several of the Mainly Mozart concerts of the Miami Chamber Music Society (see Best Bets).

The Foundation Resurgent

Coming off its latest success to attract more visitors to the city (they were behind the Umbrella Sky installation on Giralda Plaza), the Coral Gables Community Foundation is bent on expanding its reach. The foundation, which raises money for scholarships each year through signature events like the Tour of Kitchens and its annual Foundation Gala, also manages charitable funds for scores of local philanthropists.

This past March, it drew more than 28,000 people to its “Moon Over Coral Gables” installation on Ponce Circle, a giant replica of the moon funded by sponsors that included Bacardi, FPL, and Location Ventures, among others. Lead sponsor of the three-weekend event was Mosaicist, Ray Corral’s company which creates complex mosaics for homeowner’s pools.

Corral, a local philanthropist, businessman, and artist in his own right, has also donated $100,000 to the foundation to create the Corral & Cathers Artist Fund to grant awards of $5,000 each to local professional artists. (The Cathers part of the title refers to the city’s Art & Culture Specialist Catherine Cathers. (See this month’s featured story “Art for Everyone.”)

Talk of the Town in May
Foundation Chair Vinney Torre, Foundation President and CEO Mary Snow, Alina Meledena, and Ray Corral

“The Foundation is doing great right now,” says president and CEO May Snow. “We are at a crucial, exciting time in our history where we are taking this organization to a new level as the philanthropic cornerstone of the community.”

Snow says the Foundation will continue to focus on its donor-advised fund, which makes it easier and more affordable for local givers. They are also expanding their annual scholarship program to $500,000 this year from $400,000 last year, having received a record 500 applications (versus 151 last year).

“Our fundraising has increased, our annual budget has in- creased, and we’ve moved into new offices,” says Snow. “We just finished our strategic plan to grow our organization to a $50 million fund.” The Foundation currently has $10 million in assets.

Streamlining the System

One of the perennial complaints from Coral Gables citizens has been the painfully slow process of obtaining building permits. The good news? The city has now completed its overhaul of the system, moving from paper to digital. Instead of sequential reviews by different departments, the city transitioned to simultaneous reviews. The entire process is now transparently online.

The result is a vastly quicker process. By comparison, in January of this year, 25,183 permits were reviewed, compared to 9,035 reviewed in January of 2022.

Another upgrade is that the entire Development Services Department, which oversees the Building, Planning & Zoning, Board of Architects, and Code Enforcement divisions, has relocated from their cramped quarters on the third floor of City Hall to their own adjacent building at 427 Biltmore Way. Here, citizens can apply for permits or request help, with an average wait time of three minutes.

“On the third floor of the old building, there was always a crowd,” says Suramy Cabrera, Director for Development Services. “I had to go out as director and help with people who were waiting.” Now, she says, “We have the best turnaround of any city [in the county].”

Talk of the Town in May
Suramy Cabrera (center) and her team

Because the old system relied on paper plans that had to work their way through the system, permitting could take weeks, or even months. Now, “I can set the date for all the reviews [simultaneously], and people should be able to turn it around in two or three days,” says Cabrera. The only thing that creates delays at this point, she says, is when approval is required from the county’s environmental department, over which the city has no control. Those who are applying for permits can check on the progress of their applications online to address any delays.

The acceleration also includes speeding up inspections that are required for final approval of building projects. “We can look at all the inspections that everyone is doing — mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc. — and see what is going on,” says Cabrera. “We started [the new system] with more than 2,000 overdue inspections because we had no way to track code enforcement. We are now down to 20.” 

UVA Gallery Opens

Work by UVA artist Alberto J. Carol

It’s always cause for celebration when Coral Gables gets a new gallery, and one owned by two South Florida-based women is even better. Sisters and Miami natives Diana and Carolina Sarmiento recently relocated their gallery, named after the Spanish word for “grape,” to 305 Alcazar Ave. The gallery “aims to serve as the cultural liaison between generations and a world audience to unify humanities near and far.” 

Most of the artists represented by UVA are Latin, including Alberto Jorge Carol. Their next exhibition, “Go Where Your Feet Will Take You On The Unknown Road,” premieres on May 5 from 6 to 10 pm. It features artwork curated by Abel Remon of the Paragon Gallery in Wynwood. – Kylie Wang