CORAL GABLES CHARRETTE: INTRODUCTION
The 1990s witnessed a widespread rediscovery of American main streets and downtowns, a revival so powerful that it led to the construction of entirely new town centers for the first time in over half a century. Americans have once again been drawn to the pleasures and advantages of living, working, and visiting downtowns for many reasons: lively shopping streets, vibrant busi- ness districts, interesting cultural areas, attractive lofts, apartments and townhomes, and the open- air civic atmosphere of village greens, town squares, and urban plazas.
Existing downtowns, such as Coral Gables, have experienced mixed success in harnessing this trend to realize their revitalization goals. Compared to the new suburban town centers being built, older downtowns face complex challenges related to aging infrastructure, more fragmented land ownership, and issues of parking, traffic congestion, and a lack of downtown housing options. But older downtowns have their advantages as well, including prime locations, historic buildings, civic and cultural institutions, and the patina that only the passing of time and events can bestow.
Downtown Coral Gables and the neighborhoods along North Ponce de Leon Boulevard enjoy many of these advantages and have managed to avoid the significant disinvestment, vacancies and blight that other urban cores have suffered in the recent past. The City already possesses a relatively dense, maturing downtown with rising property values and an absence of blighted and vacant properties.
Despite its prowess, however, citizens and the City's leadership have clearly identified some spe- cific problems and a general dissatisfaction with the overall quality and direction of development in the downtown. There is the impression that Coral Gables consists of two cities; the one where they live - characterized by pleasant walkable, tree lined streets, a wide variety of distinctive, Mediterranean-influenced houses, and civic art in the form of fountains, pocket parks and gate- ways - and the commercial center - perceived by many as a barren environment dominated by traffic, parking lots, and indistinct buildings that could be found in any city. There are moments of past and present glory in the downtown - in the historic buildings, civic spaces, Restaurant Row and Miracle Mile - but as a whole the downtown is perceived as a place that is disconnected from the original vision and spirit of Coral Gables. Similarly, the North Ponce area seems to be evolving away from initial intentions as new buildings contrast with old and project an uncertain future.
There is also a general sense that Downtown and North Ponce have reached a historic turning point, and that they can no longer continue down a path of development where the shape of our streets and buildings is driven by accumulated layers of codes and standards that - while solving technical issues - fail to produce the types of beautiful, hospitable places that citizens so desire. Coral Gables core is not so much in need of "revitalization" as it is in need of a clear vision that reflects the high hopes its citizens have for it.