Three Years After the City Decided to Move Forward, and 18 Months After Construction Began, The Streetscape Project to Transform Giralda Avenue and Miracle Mile is Finally Complete. Now to see if it Pays Off
By Julienne Gage
IT’S FINALLY DONE.
The process of tearing up Miracle Mile to widen and beautify its sidewalks, which began in the summer of 2016, is now complete. In place of damaged sidewalks that were a mere 8-feet wide, the main promenade of downtown Coral Gables is now truly that: a tree-lined boulevard with 23-foot-wide sidewalks where people can walk, stroll, saunter or – and this is key – enjoy the pleasures of an outdoor café.
“It’s the way it was supposed to be, like a pedestrian plaza, a new experience for being indoors and outdoors,” said Coral Gables Business Improvement District (BID) Executive Director Taciana Amador. “People want to have a wonderful walking and shopping experience, they want to have sidewalk cafes. That’s what’s going to draw them in.”
If there were any doubts about the effect that widening the sidewalks will have on Miracle Mile, just go there on a Friday night. At Tarpon Bend, where the proprietors cried foul during the construction process, there are hundreds of handsomely dressed millennials pouring onto the sidewalk in a massive singles scene that would have been impossible a year earlier.
On the other side of the street, the music is throbbing at Copper 29 and nearby at Plomo, both packed. And up and down the boulevard clusters of café tables are emerging from restaurants like the heads of shy turtles, peeking out to see if it’s okay to emerge. Tables now sit outside The Red Koi, Ortanique, Loui’s, the Sushi Club, etc., all being filled by diners happy to see that the sidewalks now belong to them and not to the backhoes, tractors, and traffic barriers that have haunted the street for longer than anyone cares to remember.
At last, Coral Gables’ Streetscape strategy, a $21 million construction project aimed at updating Miracle Mile and creating a pedestrian mall on nearby Giralda Avenue, is coming to fruition, and signs of new life are everywhere. This is especially apparent on Giralda’s block-long pedestrian mall, completed months before Miracle Mile, its outdoor restaurant tables now bustling with diners. But the effect will be even more profound on Miracle Mile, the city’s core downtown avenue, which was literally breaking apart before its current revamping.
AN OVERDUE MAKEOVER
“The Mile was in not in good shape for quite some time. The trees had uplifted the sidewalks, the tile was broken, we had some additional tile but that was used up in the repairs,” says Coral Gables Assistant City Manager Peter Iglesias, who, as the director of operations and infrastructure, oversaw the project for the city. “It just looked very, very shoddy, and we were actually using asphalt to take care of some of the elevation differences, which caused trip hazards.”
City leaders have been aware of the need to upgrade for years, even decades. Current Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli remembers how in his first term in office (1993 to 2001) the city was able to improve the street with a median strip and turning lanes, but not the sidewalks. Those came under scrutiny a decade later, in 2008, when city planners grew tired of merely repairing the ongoing damage caused by events like Hurricane Katrina.
“You can only patch up so much,” said Jillian Hornik, sales manager and graduate gemologist at her family’s 73-year-old business on Miracle Mile, Jae’s Jewelers. “Water was pooling and coming into storefronts every time it rained, and in some blocks the water was well over a foot deep.”
Around that same time, the millennial generation started growing up and demanding a new urban lifestyle based not on the car, but on public transport and walkability. Baby Boomers likewise wanted to grow old gracefully in more walkable, age-friendly communities.
Those trends got city planners to put together a volunteer steering committee and reach out to the University of Miami’s School of Architecture to create some studies. But before the project could get underway, the Gables got hit with another storm: the recession. It would take six more years for the economy to recover and for city planners to feel confident enough to move forward. By then, the Mile was yet another decade older and more tattered.
Finally, in 2014, the city hired New York architecture firm Cooper-Robertson to conceptualize a redevelopment program that would repair and widen sidewalks buckled from time, flooding, and the roots of old trees, turn angled parking spaces into parallel ones, and update the landscaping and lighting. The city then hired construction company Ric-Man to execute those designs, with the goal of finishing the work by the fall of 2017.
What the city anticipated was something akin to what happened on Ocean Drive, a kind of build-it-and-they-will-come experiment. In the case of Ocean drive, Miami Beach’s decision in the 1990s to widen the sidewalks there by moving the street closer to the ocean by 20 feet led to an overnight explosion in street-side cafés.
“At last we’ll have enough space for people to happily stroll, and more strolling is exactly what you’ll see,” noted Coral Gables urban planner Victor Dover, author of Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns. “I think of the good advice Fred Kent gives, ‘When you design a city for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. When you design for people and places, you get people and places.’ We’re about to see Miracle Mile reflect a much healthier balance.”
Donald Clinton, a lead partner in Cooper-Robertson, says the natural stone mosaics of the wide, curb-less walkways – multicolored swirls on Giralda and a gray and white motif on Miracle Mile – encourage strolling, while the modern stone benches give opportunities for resting and socializing. Extra flora and fauna give the area a lush, South Florida feel, while retaining some of the old-growth trees “establishes this kind of grand scale for the landscaping,” he says.
A LONG AND BUMPY ROAD
But getting to the new Miracle Mile and Giralda Plaza was a long struggle, full of literal and metaphorical potholes. Like it or not, growing pains were inevitable, says Assistant City Manager Iglesias.
“It’s never a good time to do something like this because you’re tearing down the street, you’re taking away parking, construction’s very messy,” says Iglesias. Some of that parking would never return; a key element in the re-design was to completely remove parking from Giralda, now a pedestrian mall, and to eliminate the space-eating angular parking on Miracle Mile, replacing it with limited parallel parking. Shoppers will now have to adjust to the idea that a nearby parking garage is the best solution for shopping the Mile.
The construction process also took longer than expected, rolling right past the completion target of August 2017 and into the holiday season. It would be October before Giralda was complete, and it was not until March 2018 that the city announced the Miracle Mile Streetscape Project close to completion, with only “punch list” items – minor corrections, touch-up work – remaining.
The drawn-out process, which closed streets during construction, literally drove some of the merchants out of business. And while most remained, there were plenty of complaints – especially when you consider that property owners will be paying 40 percent of the price tag (via a 22-year bond) for the improvements.
At Tarpon Bend, the restaurant’s owner and operator, Wayne Eldred, was livid. Last August, the former Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce member told The Miami Herald that he’d lost between $800,000 and $1 million during Streetscape’s construction, calling a project he once supported a “Shakespearian tragedy,” and adding “The majority of this work was never supposed to hurt the businesses and it’s done exactly that.”
Other merchants echoed Eldred’s complaints. Wolfe’s Wine shop owner Jeffery Wolfe posted on his website, “The Mile is a construction mess… The pedestrian traffic is way down and vehicular traffic at least on the south side is down to one lane and careful the backhoe does not smack your windshield while you’re heading northeast.”
Getting the project from design to completion was admittedly a learning process for both designers and contractors, says Clinton of Cooper-Robertson.
“It’s a pretty innovative paving system with the beautiful natural stone – a different system on Giralda than on the Mile – so there was a kind of learning curve for how that should be solved,” he said, explaining that the curb-less sidewalks also required a less conventional, continuous drainage system to make the walkways more expansive and easier for stepping. “A lot of that in the early months slowed everybody down. Construction went very slowly and people got very anxious.”
Even installing the heavy stone benches and chairs – all carefully crafted in Spain – was a tedious process. “It took a while to figure out how to make the foundation for them,” Clinton said.
To ease tensions, the city offered rent abatement to retailers housed in its own buildings, parking vouchers to shops and restaurants, and subsidized garage parking of $1 an hour. The city also put up $5 valet parking stands throughout the downtown, making it possible to drop the car on one street and pick it up on another. This is in addition to the downtown trolley and the Freebee which operates like an Uber or a Lyft within the downtown area, free of charge.
City officials also tried to help the merchants with marketing. In late 2016, they hired business development specialist Francesca Valdes to prepare merchants for the grand Streetscape opening they were expecting the following August. Valdes got to work coordinating a series of marketing workshops on everything from social media to visual merchandising for storefronts.
“We brought in a top consultant from the field. We held a free seminar for retailers on small things you can do to really amp up your storefront,” she explains. “That could be as simple as changing the lighting, or a change in height in the riser in your window.”
During seminars, the city invited attendees to apply for $500 in small business development grants to help merchants make these alterations. It also gave them the option of purchasing store ‘blade signs’ that stick out from under a building’s awnings.
These incentives certainly helped, says Hornik of Jae’s Jewelers, but it didn’t solve everything. She feels fortunate that her shop didn’t lose as much business as some.
“We have the longevity, we have the client base for new businesses,” she says. But as retail lead for the BID’s Board of Directors, she has been vocal that restaurants will gain the most from Streetscape, since the expanded sidewalk can be used for outdoor dining. That extra space might also work for a few retail shops that hope to set up sidewalk sales, but certainly not for the area’s high-end merchandise like fine jewelry and wedding gowns.
Regardless, Hornik says just about all downtown business owners recognized the need for upgrades. “Coral Gables is going through a badly needed renovation, reviving for the next generation,” she said, adding that many of stores that went out of business during construction were heading in that direction before the project started.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said, noting that flexibility has been key for everyone else. “Obviously, with any type of construction there’s going to be delays, there’s going to be hiccups. Everybody voices their concerns and their frustrations, but we try to stay positive because it’s something that we wanted. We did want this renovation. We did want to attract more people to Miracle Mile.”
She says she’s already starting to see that happen; in recent months, her bookkeepers have noted a sudden uptick in new customers. “They’re people who were just walking by and saw something that they liked, who had never set foot in the store before, and that’s very encouraging for the future,” she says.
THE CITY BEAUTIFUL, ONCE AGAIN
Today, Miracle Mile’s new drainage system is designed for a 100-year return period with overflows into major trench systems on Lejeune, Ponce de Leon, and Galiano. Replanting the trees ensured their roots wouldn’t pull up the new sidewalk, or, worse yet, fall over during a storm. The gray-blue and white tiles along Miracle Mile were meant to reflect Florida’s sunny skies, while on Giralda those same colors intermingle with hues of charcoal, brown, and black, offering a modern Mediterranean feel.
“It has that European, Italian plaza feel, which is very Coral Gables, with our unique touch because we’re still modern,” says city Public Affairs Manager Maria Higgins Fallon.
And now, with the project complete, the crowds are doing what lead architect Clinton envisioned: “spilling out onto the sidewalks” of stores and restaurants, including the temporarily-depressed Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill. And despite the painful delays, on one item city officials are confident: Streetscape’s official April 14th inauguration.
“Certainly, there’s a big sense of accomplishment – because we worked so long as an organization to achieve this and seeing the reality of it come to life,” says Amador, remembering how even last year folks who wanted outdoor weekend dining would have to take a table in a parking lane. “The meters were still there, the bushes were still there, the sidewalk was very small – it was a street.”
Indeed, the efforts are already having their desired effect, says Iglesias, who notes a sudden increase in downtown shoppers and diners.
“I’ve lived in the Gables for a long time, and in the old days, the Mile was dead after hours,” he says. “People are coming back now.”