Miracle Mile might be getting its swagger back

For this month’s Neighborhood Guide, powered by Lyft, we’ve been exploring Coral Gables. What should we know about? Who should we talk to? Let us know in the comments below.

It’s a Saturday morning, and you have friends in town who say they want to go to a “cool,” “cultural” part of the city to walk, shop, eat, and grab a drink.

You probably don’t suggest Miracle Mile.

Downtown Coral Gables knows that. Aware that its stuffy reputation deters both young locals and tourists, the city’s Business Improvement District (BID) is overhauling Miracle Mile to give it a shot amid hipper counterparts like Wynwood, South Beach, and the Design District.

This week BID and the City of Coral Gables will break ground on Streetscape, an 18-month, $21.6 million plan to renovate Miracle Mile (a four-block section of Coral Way) and the adjacent 100-block of Giralda Avenue (more information on the design here.) Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to include additional partners on the project. 

“If you’re not from here, or you have a younger demographic, if you live in Miami Beach or Brickell, they tend to think of Coral Gables as an affluent, sophisticated area and that older people come here,” said Marina Foglia, executive director of the Coral Gables BID.

There’s a lot packed into these couple blocks. (Just take a look at the “eat,” “drink,” and “explore” sections of our Coral Gables Guide — you’ll find a ton of our recs clustered around those couple streets.) They just need to make it easier and more fun to discover, Foglia believes. Essential to that is making it more pedestrian friendly.

“This will completely transform our downtown. It is long overdue,” Foglia said.

How we got here

The pending redesign prompted Coral Gables Museum to take a look back at the history of the iconic street, said Caroline Parker, executive director of the Coral Gables Museum and the curator of the exhibit “Miracle Mile: The evolution of a street.”

Although this section of Coral Way didn’t become known as Miracle Mile until the 1940s or 1950s, Coral Gables founder George Merrick laid the foundation for it to become the city’s premier street in the 1920s, she said.

Merrick chose it as the location for both Coral Gables City Hall and the hub of the trolley line, cementing its status as the locus the Gables. Back then it housed everyday shops like ice stores and gas stations.

Even then, Coral Way was a major connector, extending all the way down to Brickell and intersecting with Le Jeune Road, an important thoroughfare even before it reached an airport.

The four-block section of Coral Way emerged as Miracle Mile during the post-World War II development boom in the Miami area. It was a branding initiative meant to give some distinction to a district that was becoming known as a high-end shopping destination, Parker said.

“The people who were moving in who saw the potential in what was unfinished by George Merrick,” she said. “Much of Miracle Mile was not yet developed. As they were developing it, they came up with this branding to make it a destination.”

Two particularly key couples during this period were businessman George Zain, dubbed “the father of Miracle Mile” and his wife Rebyl, who went on to become a city commissioner, and  Albert Friedman, nicknamed “Mr. Miracle Mile,” and his wife Rose, who owned and ran Ro’al’s, a high-end women’s clothing store.

This is when the nickname “Bridal Row” first emerged as well, as it became a bridal destination across the region for the high concentration of such stores.

But the development didn’t come without costs. Several historic Mediterranean-style buildings were lost, replaced with those built in more modern styles. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the trend toward more modern architecture was reversed, with an ordinance from the city that incentivizes developers to build in the original 1920s style — perks like being allowed to build higher, according to Parker.

In the 1990s, Gables merchants came together and formed the Business Improvement District to develop their own taxation scheme and advocate for property owners and merchants. They’re the ones pushing the Streetscape project today.

“The reason for the title of the show is there’s always going to be change,” Parker said. “That’s just part of staying relevant. I think that’s something that it’s time for.”

A slice of France in Miami

The city’s iconic Mediterranean architecture will remain, as will its old-world feel. But Miracle Mile’s sidewalks will be painted to remind passersby of the Florida skies, and Giralda an epic South Florida rainstorm.

And traffic patterns will be tweaked to make it an easier place for pedestrians to navigate.  The goal is for the traffic to be 50/50, said Foglia — 50 percent cars, 50 percent pedestrian.

“Currently our street is 80/20. It really caters more to the vehicle,” she added.

Modeled after the French town of Aix en Provence, the plan includes bolstering the tree canopy to bring much-needed shade to the street, opening up sidewalk dining, and turning that block of Giralda into a no-traffic pedestrian plaza.  Storefronts will have a “hallway” for pedestrians to walk through, then an outdoor dining and seating section, and then the parking.

“We have it all seriously,” Foglia insists. “We have a great happy hour scene, on the weekends we have bike tours, we have the museum, the cinema, we have the theater.”

The Coral Gables Museum is hosting a bar crawl to prove just that on May 7. Find more information here