The High Life

Vertical Living is Coming to Coral Gables. How Will it Change the City’s Character?

By J.P. Faber

January 2019

You don’t have to be a city planner to see that something is in the air. Namely construction cranes, those steel skeletons rising above the downtown, along U.S. 1 and around Merrick Park. What they are creating may transform Coral Gables – and for the better, say proponents of mixed-use urban centers. 

All told, there is approximately $1.5 billion dollars in new mid-rise construction that is just being completed, has been started, or is planned for the next couple of years in Coral Gables. The projects range from purely commercial, like the recently completed 16-story Offizina at 1200 Ponce to the purely residential, like the recently completed Biltmore Parc at 718 Valencia. Most, however, are mixed-use projects, such as 2020 Salzedo, the new 16-story headquarters for Codina Partners that also contains 213 luxury rentals, 50,000-square feet of office space and street level retail with a 5,200-sq.-ft. Bachour restaurant and bakery complex. 

While some residents worry that the latest wave of construction might threaten the quiet, tree-lined lifestyle of the Gables, advocates of vertical development see the buildings as a boon. 

Rooftop pool at Giralda Place

“I think the city is simply evolving in the way it was intended,” says Ramon Trias, Coral Gables’ head of Planning and Zoning. “The city, as conceptualized by [founder George] Merrick was brilliant, because it had very well established neighborhoods and commercial areas… these [new buildings] are mostly mixed-use projects going into very specific areas that don’t impact the rest of the community.” 

Coral Gables City Center project

Trias also points out the scale. Coral Gables has a strict height limit of 190 feet, which is about 16 stories, whereas on Brickell you have buildings soaring to 40 and 50 stories – and beyond. “Our ground level elements – the arcades, plazas, the sidewalks – are also well designed,” says Trias. “They spend no time in Brickell on those issues, so you don’t have the same quality experience in the public areas.” 

That is one reason, says developers, that the Brickell area is one source for residents moving into the growing number of mid-rise multi-use buildings in the Gables. 

A Natural Evolution 

Regardless of how well the new buildings are designed, their advent is inevitable, say analysts, if you expect to have a growing and vibrant community.  

“I think the evolution of any luxury market, even one that is not as in such high demand as Coral Gables, is naturally going to move in the direction of vertical living – simply because there is not enough space,” says Jay Phillip Parker, Douglas Elliman Real Estate’s CEO for Florida. “As population grows, people have to look toward high-rises.” 

Jay Phillip Parker

Having vertical options, especially for moderately priced apartment rentals, is also one of the ways to attract a younger demographic to a city with high property values. “I would like young people to live and work here, and to have a complete city with entertainment and a night life,” says Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli. “I really do see that George Merrick was a visionary in [city planning]. Look at the architecture, at the villages. He built a university when Coral Gables was an hour by carriage from Miami. He built a lot of things to make this a city of the future, and I think he would approve of what we are doing today.” 

Some of the mid-rise apartments recently completed include the 200-unit Gables Columbus Center, just off Alhambra in the downtown (see sidebar) and before that the Residences at Merrick Park, which are connected to the Shops at Merrick Park. In both, one-bedroom rentals start in the low $2,000s per month, not too much higher than the Miami average of $1,900 a month. 

I think the evolution of any luxury market, even one that is not in such high demand as Coral Gables, is naturally going to move in the direction of vertical living – simply because there is not enough space…

A younger demographic is one of the targets for two Gables projects that developer NP International expects to complete by next year on U.S.1. The $300 million Gables Station project near the Shops at Merrick Park will have 440 rental apartments (and 60 extended stay hotel rooms), while the $172 million Paseo de la Riviera project across from UM will have 204 apartments and a 241-room hotel. 

Brent Reynolds, NP International’s CEO, says the buildings are designed to attract a full range of demographics, with a special focus on attracting a younger market by providing what he calls “co-living” amenities that range from common social areas and co-working spaces to food and beverage outlets, grocery stores, health & wellness centers, and entertainment options.  

“Young professionals who want to get out of Brickell and take a step away from downtown congested living to a more integrated community want a meaningful life experience that is cohesive,” says Reynolds. “These vertical mixed-use projects create a lifestyle destination with adaptability.” 

Reynolds also expects to attract “the more established residents” of Coral Gables who are looking to downsize, and, with larger units, to entice young families. 

Larger units that can accommodate families is a hallmark of the new rentals that are rising, including the 174 apartments that will be part of the 7-acre Plaza Coral Gables project on Ponce Circle, just south of Miracle Mile. “The trend is towards the larger, more luxurious rental buildings,” says Patrick O’Connell, senior vice president of EWM Realty. “As the millennials who have been occupying Brickell for the last decade are getting to the age where they are coupling up and having families, they are looking to Coral Gables as a happy medium. You have the urban life, but not so crowded and with good schools.” Patrick observes that pricing for apartments in Coral Gables “doesn’t fall into what most people consider affordable housing,” so expects an influx of young professionals who can afford them. 

Brent Reynolds

As for luxury condos, says O’Connell, the trend is toward smaller, boutique buildings that will attract some young professionals but also a preponderance of local baby boomers.  

“Coral Gables developers have anticipated a need for baby boomers who have lived for years in the Gables, raised their kids here, and are now empty nesters,” he says. “They figure they would appreciate having a home in Coral Gables for the winter and then go to their second home for the summer… Between Giralda Place and the developments that MG Developer has done, like Beatrice Row and Biltmore Park, these [empty nest baby boomers] are the sort of buyers choosing these units.” 

And what they are buying, and at prices of $600 to $700 a square foot, are not like the condos of yesteryear.  

A New Kind of Condo 

“Historically there has been a very big delta between a typical condo and a single-family home,” says Parker of Douglas Elliman. “Condos were high-density, high-volume initiatives, with hundreds of units with palliative amenities and services — very different for the single-family home where you have more exclusivity and private space… 

“What we are seeing now is vertical residences with lower density, with larger floor plans and more sophisticated and curated amenities that are more in line with what single-family home provide – large balconies for indoor-outdoor living, garages, facilities to order food, concierge services, health and fitness centers, even small movie theaters – almost what you would find in a mega mansion… We have cushioned the landing from a single-family home to a condo in a way that we hadn’t in the past.” 

The Plaza Coral Gables project on Ponce Circle

This is all well and good for the buyer-cum-residents, but what about the community impact? 

That question may come to a head this month with the City Center project that developer Allen Morris wishes to build atop two proposed parking garages on Andalusia Street, directly behind the retail stores that line Miracle Mile. Morris has been trying to develop these spaces as mixed use projects, with apartments, offices and retail, that will be similar in height and appearance to his iconic Alhambra Tower, which has become a city landmark. 

Regardless of its design, the project is simply too big for its location, insists Vice Mayor Vice Lago, who has long been a champion of restraining developers who seek to put in oversized projects that threaten the Coral Gables lifestyle.  

“I have been a staunch advocate of maintaining height limitations around the city,” says Lago. “But I also believe we should have a robust and vibrant downtown.” Consequently, he says, “I have always negotiated with developers to ensure that, while we may allow more density and additional floors of height, the quality of life for the residents is increased.” For Lago, this means three things: high design standards, the provision of green space, and environmentally conscious construction. 

Lago’s objection to City Center focuses on its size relative to its location. Whereas the height had once been limited to below 100 feet, an earlier city commission voted to raise that to 190 feet, a height that would “cast a shadow on Miracle Mile,” says Lago, and create a canyon effect on Andalusia should Publix develop its parking lot on the other side of that street. He proposes that one of the two parking garages be turned into a public space instead. “We could create a world-class park, a place for gatherings and families, to increase the quality of life,” he says. 

More residential units, more offices and more retail outlets will actually do more to help the downtown, says developer Morris, who believes density in certain areas was Merrick’s vision for the city. He cites studies that show how more people living in urban cores reduces traffic, since more people walk or use public transport to get to work or recreate. 

“When you create a true livable, walkable community, you have to do it with density,” says Morris. “You have to put enough people in the offices and residential buildings and they have to be close enough [to each other]. Then they will walk to work, go to their favorite places for lunch, meet their friends afterwards for drinks or dinner or at the Actor’s Playhouse or the Art Cinema. That is what a true walkable community is all about.” 

Allen Morris

Morris also points out that more than half the city’s property taxes come from the downtown, which means single-family homeowners pay lower taxes. “The neighborhoods are the glory and beauty of Coral Gables,” says Morris, a lifetime resident. “But at the same time, if you take away the areas designated for high rises by George Merrick and build low rises, it doesn’t help preserve the old Coral Gables. It actually hurts the future of the city… If we are going to have a walkable and livable downtown, we need density.” 

The High Life Apartment

Nancy Garcia moved into a 1,000-sq.ft. apartment in the downtown Gables Columbus Center with her boyfriend and two dogs in August. She previously lived on Brickell Key and Harbor Island, but wanted to be more centrally located. “Now, Coral Gables is the heart of Miami. And I don’t miss the water after 20 years. I used to see that every day. Not anymore. Now I see windows and I hear noises and I love it. I grew up in Caracas in a very big city, so for me it’s like going back to childhood,” she says. Her top amenities? A dog-friendly policy, the gym and large closets. “Everything is walking distance,” she says. “And the fact that I can just go out and walk my dogs and there’s a little grass here and there, it’s not just cement – I love it.” 

A Sampler of 10 Mixed-Use Projects

2020 Salzedo. Just finished. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Columbus Center. Finished. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Merrick Manor. Near finished. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Gables Station. Under construction. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Paseo. Under construction. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

The Plaza. Under construction. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Giralda Place. Finished. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

55 Merrick. Finished. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

33 Alhambra. Approved. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft. 

Venera. Approved. Residential units: 213. Commercial space: 47.8k sq. ft.