Millions in taxes," Coral Gables Development Director Catherine Swanson intoned to the darkened room in the basement of police headquarters. Her slide projector clicked, and her audience, seated around the projector in a loose horseshoe of chairs, was treated to an illuminated chart. Another click: a slide that touted two luxury department stores, Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus. "Destination retail," Swanson announced. Another click. "Grand open space," Swanson said as the wall brightened with architectural drawings of a plaza, to be carved from the center of a massive shopping, hotel, apartment, office, and movie theater complex that is being proposed for the city's so-called design district.
A woman timidly ventured a question.
"Um, I'm concerned," she began hesitantly. "What will this do to the downtown? I shop downtown and I'm worried about the --"
Swanson cut her off. "Do you really shop downtown?" she asked.
"Um, yes I do," replied the woman. "I buy my shoes there."
"Do you really?" Swanson shot back, putting an end to the exchange.
The message was clear: This recent city-sponsored public hearing, held ostensibly to evaluate the merits of two competing development proposals, was in fact an infomercial for the larger project, a "high-end" (as it was repeatedly referred to) shopping mall that would be the largest development in Coral Gables history.
"I don't think they are going to listen to anybody," says Sylvia Hofstetter, who attended the public forum. Body & Soul Fitness Center, the gym she manages near the proposed development site, is likely to prosper if Gables commissioners approve the mall later this year, but to Hofstetter that isn't the point; it's the city's lack of openness to public input that troubles her. "My opinion is that the city wants to make money, they want to get the City of Coral Gables on the map. And money talks. That's the way it is."
Despite the municipal cheerleading, public resistance to the mall has mounted, spawning a nonprofit committee and even a Website on the Internet (www.savethegables.org). But although Gables politicians have not yet announced their views about the mall, Hofstetter's sentiments aptly express the mood around city hall: The mall is a done deal.
"In more than 40 years [of working with different governments], I have never seen such one-sided rooting from city officials," huffs eminent architecture historian and Gables resident Vincent Scully, who worries that the mall will eviscerate one of South Florida's few well-planned communities.
No one denies that the city's equipment yard, an 8.4-acre repository for police-impounded cars and city vehicles, looms like a pimple on the City Beautiful's pristine face. Located just north of U.S. 1 on Le Jeune Road, the yard remains an eyesore, while the area surrounding it has evolved into a neighborhood of studios, trade showrooms, and professional offices.
In October 1996 city officials published a call for development to harmonize with the existing businesses. "The City desires a project that will serve as a catalyst for the continued vitality and evolution of the Design District as well as generating revenue for the City," stated the request for proposals. "While no specific uses are mandated, the City's preference is for a mix of uses that will be synergistic with the emerging use and character of the Design District, and create a clean, safe, and stimulating environment for the people of Coral Gables and surrounding areas to live, work, shop, be entertained, and enjoy."
One of the two finalists, a design by Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's DPZ firm, seemed a snug fit for the city's call for bids: a $55 million community of 614 apartments on top of a modest 21,000 square feet of retail space, to be occupied by video rental stores, coffee shops, and the like. "It's the opposite of suburban sprawl," was the way Swanson described the DPZ plan to the Miami Herald after the bids were received in February.
The other finalist, its critics argue, is suburban sprawl defined. While eight of the nine qualifying bidders carefully restricted their proposals to the 8.4-acre city parcel, the Rouse Company, developers of Baltimore's Harbor Place, Boston's Faneuil Hall, and Miami's Bayside Marketplace, was quietly cooking up something bigger. Representatives from the company furtively acquired the options to purchase privately owned property around the yard. Instead of squeezing a project onto the city-owned footprint as their competitors did, Rouse proposed a twenty-acre supermall: 800,000 square feet of retail, an art-house movie theater, a 180-room hotel, 60 apartments, and thousands of square feet in offices. The estimated price tag for the project is $275 million.
A seven-member evaluating committee unanimously preferred the Rouse mall, in no small part owing to expected annual tax revenues four times greater than those promised by the DPZ proposal.
"My job at that point," says Swanson, "became to go out and explain why the committee voted the way it did."
Her assignment differs dramatically from the city's recent efforts to work with its retail community, which until now has been concentrated in the downtown core designed by city founder George Merrick. In previous years the city beautified its Miracle Mile with customized trash cans and landscaping. To diversify the booteries and bridal shops that dominate the strip, planners recruited a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a Starbucks coffee shop.
Despite these efforts, downtown merchants in February 1996 voted not to create a Business Improvement District (BID) that would call for a special tax on affected shopkeepers to pay for further marketing and physical improvements of the core shopping area.
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"It's hard to reach a consensus with independent store operators," Swanson notes. "Many of these business people specifically go to a street to avoid the hassles of uniformity [in a mall]."
One Gables official, who asked not to be named, feels the city may have hurt the BID vote unintentionally. "The city's position was neutral," the official explains. "The city felt that if the people wanted to tax themselves, then they should, but the city shouldn't promote a special tax. But people thought if the city was neutral on it, then it must not be a good idea, and they voted against it. That neutrality hurt the BID."
That neutrality wasn't at all evident in the basement of the police department during Swanson's slide show. Midway through her presentation, a man raised his hand and asked a question that mustered a cheer from his fellow audience members. "Why don't we just get it out in the open?" he queried the development director. "It is obvious that this project is going to happen whether we like it or not."
Seated in the dark beside her slide projector, Swanson did not correct him.