An Interview with Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli
By JP Faber // Photography by Jon Braeley
On April 9 the voters of Coral Gables re-elected Raúl Valdés-Fauli for another two-year term. It was an impossibly close election, decided by 123 votes out of 8,519 cast. The principle issue was growth, in particular the recent burst of multi-use buildings rising in the downtown, on the US 1 corridor and around the Shops at Merrick Park, with Valdés-Fauli advocating for what he calls “rational development” and his opponent Jeannett Slesnick advocating for putting the brakes on any more building, at least for a while.
On other issues, the two opponents were not at serious odds. Both advocated the annexation of High Pines and Little Gables. Both want better police protection; he with better technology, she with more police on the street. Valdés-Fauli also championed expanding public art, while Slesnick stumped for a closer relationship between the city and its public schools and UM.
We spoke with Mayor Valdés-Fauli shortly after his re-election to get an idea of what his main priorities would be in the coming two years and his thoughts about the city. This is our interview, edited for clarity and space.
Why was the election so close?
The election was close because Coral Gables still has a small town mentality when we are not a small town anymore… People have a nostalgia for Coral Gables the way it used to be. I would like for it to be the way it used to be, but it’s not anymore… When I came here in the 1970s, I bought my house from a sole practitioner on Giralda. I bought my insurance from a small time insurance agency on Andalusia, my doctor made home visits, my CPA who did my tax returns had a little office on Ponce. Now you have [large professional organizations] who do that, but the small-time solo practitioners, the small-town Coral Gables residents [who remember] when Coral Gables was at the edge of Miami-Dade County, these people still vote. Progress has come and progress has marginalized them. And these are the people who voted for [Slesnick] and I understand that. But, the old Coral Gables is no more and cannot be any more.
Are you concerned with the low voter turnout (25 percent) for the election?
The highest the turnout has ever been is 30 percent. But I remain in favor of off-cycle elections. The turnout would be much higher for a presidential election, but we’d be number 372 on the ballot after Trump and Hillary and Scott and Nelson and whatever. People wouldn’t pay attention. The 25 percent that vote do pay attention.
Why are you in favor of “rational” development?
Overall, why not have people living here instead of driving here? And if you had no development, then what? Our downtown is 5 percent of our geographic area and it pays for 45 percent of our expenses. Our taxes would have to go up 75 percent were it not for the downtown contribution. Compare our tax rates to South Miami or Pinecrest. Our residential tax rates are much lower, 40 to 50 percent lower. It’s the downtown that does it. And our services are incredible… Someone has to pay for that.
What are you most proud of during your past two years as mayor?
I am very, very proud of finishing Miracle Mile, which had taken forever. And I’m very proud of the Innovation Council, and what we are doing in that respect. I’m very proud of the art we are bringing here, having been part of Art Basel two years in a row. I’m very proud of the development of the [Coral Gables] museum, which is now having fantastic exhibits. And I am very proud of our very rational development. I think it is going to be a different city in two, three or four years, and a better city, keeping the residential areas sacred, with a vibrant downtown.
Overall, why not have people living here instead of driving here? And if you had no development, then what?Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli
What’s been your biggest challenge as mayor?
Traffic. We want to keep traffic away from residential streets. We have tried to put in traffic calming devices, but dealing with the county has been a nightmare. Everybody around us – West Miami, South Miami, Pinecrest – has traffic calming devices on the street. The county finally approved them for us three months ago. I think we are being shortchanged by the county staff whenever we try to do anything new. They are doubly bureaucratic with us as they are with the other cities, just because it’s Coral Gables. That has been very frustrating.
Beyond rational development, what specific goals do you have for the next two years?
I want Coral Gables to be the cultural center for people to enjoy, whether it’s a soccer game [at a downtown pub] or the theater, or a lecture at Books and Books. That is what we should be, and I would like to develop that [strong cultural role] even more. I would also like to concentrate on education – our Coral Gables High School, Coral Gables Preparatory Academy [formerly Coral Gables Elementary], and West Lab [at UM] – to maybe acquire space in West Lab for Coral Gables residents. And then, maybe, have a downtown park – though not on Miracle Mile or Andalusia – but perhaps west of Giralda. It’s all about quality of life.
You have been a strong proponent of innovation, including license plate readers for cars passing through the city. There is at least one lawsuit against the city for excessive surveillance. Has it gone too far?
That’s absurd, and those lawsuits have never gotten to first base. We are being criticized for the license plate readers. But the essence of it is not for you to lose your privacy, but to find out who that car belongs to. It does prevent and reduce crimes, because most thieves will rob a house driving a stolen car. And this detects stolen cars. I think they [opponents to the cameras] are way off the mark, and those kinds of lawsuits never succeed.
What are some specific innovations you would like to see come to fruition?
We are automating a lot of things. Where the garbage pickup trucks are, the perimeter cameras, emergency and police response times. I want to know where our resources are and make better, more efficient use of them.
Besides your role as mayor, and as a solo-practice attorney in Coral Gables, what are your favorite past-times?
I lived in Paris for a year [as a young man] and I still go back two or three times a year. I enjoy it very much, its beautiful architecture, its beautiful boulevards… the things one loves about Paris are the things one loves about Coral Gables in its own way. Beautiful, great schools, great theater, great art, an urbane and civilized place. Paris is also walkable, and we want to make Coral Gables a walkable city, you know? I also grow orchids. It’s my hobby. I garden on Sunday mornings. It’s very relaxing. And, I love walking Miracle Mile on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It’s packed with people and it’s lovely.
What annoys you most about the city and what makes you happiest?
When I look at Coral Gables residents it is sometimes like this. You can have the most beautiful woman in the world, but then this beautiful lady has a pimple in the middle of her forehead. That’s the only thing that people look at, the pimple in the middle of the forehead, and they complain about that. To me that is sometimes Coral Gables, their residents and their reactions. There are a lot of things that government can’t fix, but it’s still a wonderful, wonderful city. And for me, that is what makes me happiest, our wonderful quality of life.