Will Coral Gables Develop into a Biking Community? Citizens are Split
By Mike Clary
On most workdays, urban designer Kenneth Perez bicycles to the office from his home near Miracle Mile, often traveling south on Alhambra Circle. The commute is fast, mostly shaded, and “the health benefits are both mental and physical,” he says. J.D. Collongette’s daily routine includes biking to the gym, and then to his job as a waiter in a downtown Gables restaurant. For him, not using a car “makes financial sense, and it’s a good workout.”
And concert violinist Charles Castleman rides his bike 175 miles a week, including 16-mile round trips between his home on Brickell Key to the University of Miami, where he is a professor at the Frost School of Music. “For me biking is largely a relative of meditation,” says Castleman, who is 78. “The benefit of exercise is almost incidental.”
Perez, Collongette and Castleman are just three among a growing number of riders empowering the emergence of Coral Gables as a center of bicycling culture. The movement to entice people out of their cars and into the saddle of a two-wheeler is central to the goal of making the City Beautiful “the most livable, environmentally friendly and multi-modal city in Florida,” according to the city’s website.
“Can you imagine commuting to work while having fun and de-stressing?” the city asks residents. “Can you imagine riding a bike in a safe, protected bike lane with your family without sitting in traffic? Coral Gables is working to make this mobility option a reality for all ages and abilities.”
To accomplish its pedal-power goals, the city is banking on a 2014 commission-approved Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan that outlines the expansion of the existing 10.5-mile bicycle network with 34 miles of new bikeways. The path to that happening, however, is not entirely clear.
Alhambra: The First Hitch
The next step in the plan is the Alhambra Circle Traffic Calming project, which would turn the scenic roadway into a “Complete Street” by installing five-foot-wide bike paths, and some sidewalks, between Coral Way and San Amaro Drive a few blocks north of the University of Miami campus. That 4.6-mile stretch of road would then connect with existing bike paths on Alhambra Circle north of Coral Way, on Red Road, Sevilla and Anastasia Avenues, and connect downtown to the Biltmore Hotel, the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center, and Betsy Adams Park.
The plan calls for creating bike lanes on Alhambra Circle by reducing the north-south vehicle traffic lanes to 10 feet in width, repaving the roadway and installing handicap-accessible sidewalk connecters. The bike lanes would also be used by riders of increasingly popular e-scooters.
But in recent months some residents of the impacted area have begun pushing back against the city’s plan, contending they were not properly advised of a project that could mean the loss of shade trees and green-space swale, bring unwanted bicycle and pedestrian traffic to their neighborhoods, and make the streets less safe for drivers. “This plan is potentially catastrophic,” says Marvin Ross Friedman, who lives in the 3400 block of Alhambra Circle and is one of dozens of residents who expressed their opposition in October when city officials conducted an on-site walk through of the area. “There is no reason this should be done,” he says.
Also vocal in opposition was Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, who with other neighbors distributed “No bike paths on Alhambra Circle” yard signs. Other signs reading “Do not kill this tree” had been tacked to some large live oaks and black olives near the roadway that opponents said would be endangered by more paving. “What makes me most angry is the lack of resident involvement in the process going back to 2014,” says Pinera-Vazquez, who again voiced her opposition at a Coral Gables City Commission meeting in December. “This is a plan developed by all the special interest groups who will benefit down the line.”
Assistant City Manager Ed Santamaria, who led a contingent of a dozen officials and bike plan consultants on the walk-through, disputes that, saying residents have had ample opportunity to comment on the proposal since the concept was first proposed in 2004 and the current master plan was published more than five years ago.
Nonetheless, Santamaria said the surge in opposition has led the city to push back the timeline for the start of construction until later in 2021 and schedule another walk-through for this month. “We understand that some sensibilities are bruised, and we can’t make everyone happy,” says Santamaria.
The Bike Plan in Jeopardy?
Neighborhood opposition has killed bike path projects before. In 2018 the city scrapped plans for a designated route along Riviera Drive after residents complained loudly about the loss of green space and an increase in traffic congestion.
Regardless, the money for the Alhambra Circle remake is there, thanks in part to a 2015 federal transportation grant of $597,670. And according to bicyclists, so too is the need. But does the political will exist?
Although the bike plan was approved by the commission more than five years ago, at least one current commission member – Vice Mayor and announced mayoral candidate Vince Lago – has his doubts. “My biggest concern is that we should have a consensus and hear from actual residents and not outside interest groups,” says Lago, who describes himself as an environmentalist, but not a bicyclist. Lago favors installing sidewalks on all collector streets “before we discuss anything further,” he says. “I want to let it play out.”
The prospect of more delays in implementing the bike plan drives proponents crazy. “More should have been done by now, absolutely,” says Tony Garcia, whose firm Street Plans wrote the master plan. “We did a similar study in Miami Beach [about the same time] and they have gone on to implement a significant amount of it, comparatively.” But, Garcia added, Coral Gables “is a conservative city.”
At a lively, earlier community meeting that drew about 100 people to the Youth Center this past fall, opponents voiced concerns about traffic, the loss of tree canopy, and the duplication of a bike path that now exists on Red Road, just a block to the west. More than one speaker said bike lanes would complicate passage along the curving roadway over a small canal bridge on Alhambra Circle, five blocks north of Bird Road. “That bridge is too narrow, too dangerous,” said one resident. “And that master plan was not approved by residents.”
Even before that meeting, bicyclist and urban planner Victor Brandon Dover warned that “a few fearful people are stirring up a ‘bikelash’” designed to thwart any measures to encourage bicycling and make it safer. “We could end up with a long-needed link in the local bike network without taking away from the drivers’ experiences or diminishing the beauty and value of the street at all,” said Dover. “We could make the whole neighborhood safer and saner and better, for everyone, not just the people on bikes.”
Gables resident Robert Ruano, chairman of the nonprofit Bike Walk Coral Gables and one of the most vocal proponents for the plan, said the opposition to the bike path leaves him “disappointed in a lot of my neighbors, because it seems like those against it are thinking only of the way it might affect them. This is a win-win, but people are afraid of the new.” Ruano was one of the founding members of Bike Walk Coral Gables, and also argues that it’s not just about bike paths but about sidewalks along the same streets.
Another disappointed veteran cyclist and Gables resident is John Swain, secretary of Bike Walk Coral Gables (see side bar on right). In a post-meeting letter to city commissioners and City Manager Peter Iglesias, Swain wrote, “People don’t like [any] change and will resist. Once the Alhambra complete street project is completed and residents get used to it, there will not be many, if any, complaints.”
Swain said the majority pro-bike sentiment expressed at the September community meeting “clearly shows that there is citywide demand for walking and cycling infrastructure. Your residents want this project to go forward… Citywide, the residents of Coral Gables want safer streets.”
The Question of Safety
Safety is a clear concern for those who bike regularly. And almost every bicyclist has a near-miss story. Castleman said a motorist challenged him to a game of chicken at a busy intersection, and he was once knocked off his bike and thrown into a cement wall by a speeding skateboarder. “Lots of bruises, no broken bones,” he reported.
Collongette has been bumped from behind at a stop sign and knocked over. “I have seen people get hit, and seen a lot of close calls,” he says. “Without clear bike lanes, it’s mayhem. My mom tells me every day that I’m nuts.”
During his commute to work, Kenneth Garcia has so far avoided close calls. “When a car is coming, you have to have faith that people are driving correctly,” he says. “I ride defensively and am always aware of my surroundings.” Bike lanes, he said, “would make a big difference in my sense of safety, and make it so that I don’t feel like I’m in the way of anybody.”
Gables resident and bicyclist Sue Kawalerski, former president of the Everglades Bicycle Club, said designated bike lanes would cut down on collisions between cyclists, pedestrians and distracted drivers; according to the Coral Gables Police Department, there were 38 biking accidents in 2018 severe enough to warrant a police report, up from 30 the year before. “Ideally, everybody should be in their own separate lane so we’re not crashing into each other,” she said. “But residents have to be heard. Then we can come to an agreeable solution.”
Ruano says that there is simply no valid argument against installing either bike paths or sidewalks, and that fears of losing trees are highly exaggerated. “We have beautiful tree canopies over streets where there are both bike paths and sidewalks. How is it that they can thrive? The argument that we will lose trees is simply not true.”
Indeed, assistant public works director for the Sustainable Public Infrastructure Division, Jessica Keller, sent out a mass email after the Alhambra walk-through. In the email, she supplied illustrations of the city’s methodology for installing sidewalks, which would be more invasive than the bike paths. “The City has five arborists on staff, actively engaged and responsible for the health and beauty of our urban forest,” the email read. “It is the City’s intent to keep trees in their existing locations and to avoid any root pruning.”
Ruano says he is trying to remain hopeful that Coral Gables will carry out its vision of making the city a bicycling center. “It’s a big test,” he says. “If the city doesn’t go ahead and approve a bike lane on Alhambra Circle, where will they ever approve it?” Like Ruano, other members of the Gables biking community cannot understand the opposition to more bike paths that will encourage alternatives to the automobile. Oliver de Abreu opened his third SunCycling shop on Ponce Circle, for example, because of what he perceived as growing demand in Coral Gables. He says his top buyers are people who want to bike to work, navigating the backroads on a bike rather than the bumper-to-bumper of US-1. “We need to support other means of transport in the city,” he says.
Nonetheless, residents in the areas where bike paths are planned will be heard from again. In addition to the January walk-through, the city in 2020 plans to poll by mail about 1,000 homeowners on Alhambra Circle and nearby streets. Santamaria predicted the poll would show a 50-50 split between those who support and those who oppose the plan.
“There are passionate opinions on both sides of this matter,” he says. “[But] bicycling is definitely going to be a component as to sustainability, promoting active lifestyles, traffic calming, and to make all modes of mobility safer. Will Coral Gables have an identity for its bike culture? That depends on how all this unfolds. That’s the intent. But there has to be a lot of engagement between now and then.”