Coral Gables, University of Miami go national to transform downtown
By Rachel Tannenbaum
Before downtown Coral Gables can begin its long-planned streetscape project, the Business Improvement District of Coral Gables is partnering with the University of Miami to create an informational campaign to set a definite course to transform the area into a destination.
The Downtown Coral Gables Streetscape Project is a $16 million project that aims to expand and repair sidewalks, improve lighting and drainage systems and create a public gathering space.
But before the repairs can begin, the improvement district, which works with the residents and merchants of Coral Gables, plans to gather nationally-recognized experts for walking tours, presentations and moderated discussions for input on how to update the downtown overlay district.
"The streetscape is the "hardware' infrastructure improvement and our overlay study will identify the uses and "software' applications that will take full advantage of the streetscape improvements," said Mari Gallet, executive director of district.
Ms. Gallet said that the district has committed $25,000 for both the overlay study and the streetscape project.
"The overlay study and the project go hand-in-hand," she said.
The improvement district began working with the University of Miami for the first time three years ago, and the effort will be spearheaded by Dr. Charles C. Bohl, UM associate professor and director of the graduate program in real estate development and urbanism. His team will be composed of graduate students and architects, and Ms. Gallet said the school has a specialty in designing cities and streets of the future.
The improvement district's president agrees with Ms. Gallet.
"We are excited to partner with UM because the school has influenced much of the country and is setting trends; a lot comes out of UM," said Burton Hersh, president and chair of the initiative.
Mr. Hersh said announcements for the overlay study are now being sent out to members and guests. Ms. Gallet said the experts will be staying at a hotel in downtown Coral Gables and will be able to explore the district.
As for the study, it will show the physical issues of downtown Coral Gables and look at some of the issues like zoning and retail display.
"The problem with Miracle Mile is that 20% of it is pedestrian friendly and 80% of it is vehicle friendly, and we want to change that ratio to make it 40% to 60%," Mr. Hersh said. "There are stronger retail values when the ratio gets closer to 50% to 50%."
Part of the study will be on how to keep the streets busy when the retail shops start to close for the night. Mr. Hersh said the purpose of the study is to look at all the things that can be used to make downtown perform better, like giving retail shops a reason to stay open later.
"Miracle Mile around 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. dies a bit because all the shops start to close," Mr. Hersh said. "We want to bring in different venues other than restaurants but the tight city zoning makes it difficult."
The problem with improving downtown Coral Gables, Ms. Gallet said, is that there are a lot of codes that permit the establishment of venues, like comedy clubs and bars.
In order for there to be a bar in downtown Coral Gables, Ms. Gallet said, at least 50% of the profit must be food related.
"There aren't any typical bars; the codes are written pretty tightly," Ms. Gallet said.
The study should be done by early summer, which Ms. Gallet said mirrors the end of the university's spring semester. Once the study is complete, the improvement district will release its findings.
Mr. Hersh said there's a lot of market pressure from other urban downtowns and he wants to keep downtown Coral Gables relevant.
"Many places in Florida and the US are trying to recreate as urban settings, and downtown Coral Gables is one of the oldest, largest and most historical," Ms. Gallet said. "The architecture and design is already here and we want to protect it for the future to come."
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