The Urban Solution

As Coral Gables Continues to Evolve into a Walkable City, Townhouses are Providing an Urban – and Urbane – Alternative for Homeowners who Want to Downsize. The Only Limit is Zoning

By Doreen Hemlock

May 2019

After years living in a large, historic home with a swimming pool and gardens, Liz and Edmund Parnes were ready for a place that required less maintenance. The couple sold their house on Granada Boulevard and tried out waterfront condo life, renting a big apartment in downtown Miami. But condo rules felt constricting, including limits on where they could take their dog.

Their solution: a townhome back in Coral Gables. The couple’s current two story residence on Valencia Avenue is nearly as spacious as their former house and still offers a rooftop area for Liz’s beloved rose bushes. It also provides easy walkability to restaurants and shops in the way that downtown apartments do.

“You have that kind of feeling of Georgetown or New York. It’s urban, elegant and architecturally beautiful,” says Liz Parnes, a retired marketing executive. “Your home is on the sidewalk. You can park in the back and not take your car out. You can walk to stores and the movies and to get your nails done. You can enjoy neighbors with similar interests. It has the best of everything.” Coral Gables long has been known for its leafy, single-family houses and in recent years, for mid-rise condominiums. But there’s another growing niche that distinguishes the City Beautiful from other locales across the Sunshine State: townhomes, especially luxury ones that often top $1.5 million each.

Dozens of the upscale townhomes have sprouted in the past decade near downtown. Many have been built by Coral Gables-based Torre Companies, led by CEO Venny Torre, a self-described new urbanist who promotes pedestrian-friendly living. He lives in a townhouse he built and walks to his office downtown.

“What’s important in the urban setting is to densify,” says Torre. “Townhouses offer a missing middle between apartment buildings and single family housing without having over density.”

Over the next several years, dozens more are planned near downtown, including 15 deluxe homes by MG Developer slated to sell for more than $2.5 million each at Althea Row and Biltmore Row.

Yet, there’s a limit to their growth in the Gables beyond price: zoning. Currently, there are only about 15 square blocks in the city designated for townhouses, primarily eight blocks on either side of Valencia Avenue just outside the downtown, and another half dozen on the north side of University Park; the only other location is a city block on Granada Boulevard at the southeast corner of Desoto Plaza.

An American Classic, Appealing To Pedestrians

Coral Gables tweaked its zoning code about a decade ago to facilitate townhomes in select multi-family areas – but set strict rules. Chief among requirements: attached row houses must be built on streets with alleys, so that vehicles can access their garages through the back. This way the street front can display doors for people, not for their cars.

That’s the way classic “homes in the town” were built centuries ago on the U.S. east coast – next to alleys that could accommodate horse-and-buggies or other vehicles, says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, an urban designer and UM architecture professor who is working on an update of Coral Gables’ zoning code.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
Photo by Jonathan Dann

“If you think of the early settlements in the U.S., such as Boston and Philadelphia, townhomes are in our DNA,” says Plater-Zyberk. “They were both for the wealthy class and working class,” ranging from grand residences with stately gardens to small quarters for craftspeople. Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross, who is credited with sewing the first American flag, lived in one.

Across the Sunbelt, rapid development in the 20th century favored single family houses scattered across ample land in the suburbs. “But when we started to worry about suburban sprawl and the long commute people were having, it seemed logical to look at townhomes again,” says Plater-Zyberk. Today, urban townhomes can provide a sensible transition from single family homes to higher-density apartments.

The most important thing to avoid is garage doors facing the street, says Plater-Zyberk. “Generally speaking, urban townhomes make beautiful streetscapes, with doors individualized by each resident and front yard areas decorated with plants. It’s elegant frontage that makes the sidewalk safe, comfortable and interesting for pedestrians.”

Buy A Piece Of Florida Political History?

The Coral Gables’ townhome niche made headlines this winter when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put his property on the market for $1.795 million. Bush had moved to 651 Almeria Ave. (in a row of townhouses built by Torre) from a single-family house and has since relocated to a newer townhome in the city.

Bush’s two-story townhouse for sale is light and airy, a perfect example of what makes townhomes such attractive alternatives to condos or traditional homes. It has an interior courtyard and a skylight above its sweeping staircase, says Lani Kahn-Drody, president of Lowell International Realty, the Coral Gables-based boutique brokerage handing the listing. The residence also features four bedrooms, a two-car garage, 11-foot ceilings in many rooms and 16-foot ceilings in the master bedroom. As a luxury home, it also has oakwood floors, a coral-rock façade and high-end finishes, such as teak-wood around the mirrors.

Brokers say most buyers for today’s Coral Gables townhomes come from nearby areas in South Florida. They’re often older couples, like the Parnes’ or the Bushes, who are looking to simplify after decades in big houses or condos, and seeking walkability in a smaller downtown, not the skyscraper-filled streets of Miami.

Some buyers also are heading to low-tax Florida from the greater New York region, now that federal tax reform has cut state and local deductions for residents of high-tax areas. They’re purchasing second homes or establishing residency in South Florida, both for warmer weather and tax advantages. Says Kahn-Drody, “Northeasterners love the urban, yet residential feel around downtown Coral Gables.”

Generally speaking, urban townhomes make beautiful streetscapes, with different doors and front yard areas with decorated plants…

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, urban designer and UM architecture professor
Townhome Pioneers: Torre, Villalongo And Torrealba

In real estate circles, in chronological order three people stand out among pioneers of Coral Gables townhomes: Torre, Maria-Cristina Villalongo and Alirio Torrealba.

Builder and developer Torre has completed seven townhome projects in the city since 2002, for a total of 72 units. “These kinds of homes create an elegant urban fabric around the downtown,” says Torre.“They create urban density but within a human sort of scale.”

Torre says today’s townhomes are expensive because land near downtown is costly. What’s more, only a handful of streets now can host a row of townhouses, based on current requirements for back alleys, setbacks, minimum width and other issues.

Torre would like to see the city tweak its rules to encourage townhomes on alleys near commercial areas in north Gables, east of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and south of downtown. “They are attractive for buyers who want to be in an urban neighborhood but not in a condo” says Torre.

Today’s townhomes are expensive because land near downtown is costly. What’s more, only a handful of streets can host a row of townhouses on alleys, based on current rules for setbacks, minimum witdth and other issues…

Venny Torre, CEO of Torre Companies

Villalongo is a Coral Gables resident who dreamed of turning her family’s land into townhouses. With a group of community leaders she sought zoning changes a decade ago to spur townhomes her city, noting that founder George Merrick had planned upscale apartment buildings along Biltmore Way. Now she is handling sales for the Althea Row and Biltmore Row projects being built on her family’s land by MG Developer. “Townhouses remind me of old glamorous movies,” she says.

Torrealba is the biggest developer of luxury townhomes in Coral Gables today, including 32 built or planned in Biltmore Square area just west of City Hall and the downtown. He would like to develop more in other parts of the city. “Imagine Ponce de Leon full of townhomes with alleys behind, all the way to Bird Road. That would be beautiful and add value to the neighborhood.”

Meet You At The City Park?

For buyers, one draw to Coral Gables’ urban townhomes is ownership of the land in a “fee simple” structure like owning a house. That contrasts with condos, where an association owns the building and the land, while the condo buyer owns just their unit.

Some buyers downsizing from large houses seek out convenience for when they travel. “It’s a lot easier to lock up these townhomes and go to England for a month and not worry about mowing the lawn or worry about the security of a single-family home,” said Mauricio J. Barba, a broker associate with real-estate firm One Sotheby’s. He has sold four $1.5 million-plus townhomes in the city last year alone.

Townhouse buyers Marcos Perez and his wife Rosita say they enjoy a more urban lifestyle since they moved to their townhome two years ago. Like the Parnes family, they moved from a waterfront condo elsewhere in the Miami area. “It has a degree of privacy, and it has access to the street without going through the whole building,” says Marcos Perez, a retired pharmaceutical executive. The family can walk comfortably to shops, restaurants and galleries.

The Mariuttos are another family that made the move to a townhouse, from an older home less than a mile away. They’ve figured out ways to substitute for the big backyard they gave up, adding plants in the patio and spending more time in the nearby Youth Center and other public facilities. “We’re surrounded by beautiful parks, and we love the location,” says Jissy Mariutto. “We walk all the time.”

Artist rendering of MG Developer’s Althea Row