Cabrera Makes His Case — And It’s a Good One

I spoke with Ralph Cabrera two weeks ago about his campaign for Mayor of Coral Gables. Election day is April 14. Cabrera seems very well informed, as you would expect from someone who served multiple terms on the Commission and also ran for Mayor two years ago.

We began by talking about the development issue. Cabrera took me through the statistics – three million square feet of coming development – and pointed out that six of the projects are seeking variances beyond the “Mediterranean bonus” they are entitled to for incorporating various architectural details into their plans. These include requests to provide lessened parking on the theory that mixed use development means the same spots get used by different kinds of people at different times of day, requiring less parking overall. He noted the effects of the proposed projects on roads, sewerage and water.

The bottom line, Cabrera was clear, is that while he’s for development there is a need to carefully consider and minimize side effects.

As regards the current Master Plan, Cabrera had a number of ideas for improvements – frankly, he was much better informed about this than I am. For example, Cabrera said he would favor setting new parameters for landscape tops and swales (some proposals want parking on swales to count as part of their parking quota). The rules need to give staff clearer guidance on what the city wants and will accept. The city should get its own traffic studies rather than relying on developers to provide them. He would not, however, support changing the CBD’s coverage area without an analysis of the consequences, and especially the effect on traffic flows.

I thought Cabrera was at his best when he discussed infrastructure issues, in which he included traffic, water, sewerage, buildings police and fire. The new development we’ve had recently, not to mention what is coming, increases the demand on all of these. Of these, Cabrera rated public safety as the top priority: while we have fewer fire rescue staff than we used to, some of the new places in town such as the Palace (retirement center), and the Riviera Health Resort (rehabilitation center) produce as many as five calls per day. Furthermore, the new construction on the drawing board is for taller buildings. These impose additional demands on both police and fire. For example if police or EMTs are on the 15th floor, they can’t respond as quickly to something in another part of town. Greater numbers and greater density thus both create needs for more police and fire/emergency staff. As for the buildings, Cabrera waxed indignant about the poor conditions of our fire stations – one has asbestos, the other has a water problem.

To my question about green spaces, Cabrera responded that the 2001 CBD charrette suggested more pocket parks, but the city hasn’t followed through; it should he said, by incentivizing developers to include pocket parks in their projects. Similarly, Cabrera said, we need more showers and bike storage to encourage bike commuting. On the residential side we need “more working components to passive parks” and need “active” parks – parks with things like climbing walls, playgrounds, “working parks”. Cabrera said that most of these small parks should not have parking so as to make them genuine neighborhood parks. When I suggested active parks might be expensive, Cabrera replied that in fact passive parks are at least as expensive to maintain.

Asked about the Gables’s role in preparing for sea level rise, Cabrera mostly repeated what he has said in public about the city’s failure to make use of the Green Task Force.

As I noted in my introductory item I think Coral Gables is going to have a big increase in its tax receipt inflow soon. I asked Cabrera what he’d do with it. The emphasis he said should be infrastructure, particularly to fix the gaps in what the City currently owns, such as the fire stations. The new revenue might mean you don’t have to borrow for that. Unfortunately, Cabrera said, the city has current debt which cannot be repaid from general revenues, it must be paid from fees such as the fire fee.

Conflicts of interest have been an issue in the campaign, so I asked Cabrera how often he’d had to recuse himself in his 12 years on the Commission. Cabrera said he’d had two possible conflicts while on the Commission; for the first he was advised he didn’t need to recuse after disclosing it. The only actual recusal came about after Cabrera informally advised the Coral Gables Country Club between the first and second readings of an application to the Commission; after disclosure the city attorney advised him to recuse and he did.

As for future conflicts of interest, Cabrera said that none of the projects now in the pipeline that are likely to come before the Commission are clients of his. He has a friend, an architect, who coached his son in little league, who is involved in one current project. He also has one client who is also a 17-year friend, who has a project in the works but it is as of right. And, Cabrera wanted me to know, unlike the incumbent Mayor Jim Cason, he didn’t get the majority of his first $20,000 in contributions from developers.

Ariel Fernandez has proposed eliminating the garbage fee and paying for current services out of general revenue. Cabrera didn’t seem attracted to the idea but said “I would certainly contemplate it.”

I asked about the election – should it remain in an off year? Should there be a runoff or STV (aka “instant runoff voting”) where voters rank the candidates? Should we be concerned about a multi-candidate election potentially going to someone with a small minority of the votes? Cabrera said he would not want the election to be in November, as its non-partisan character is one of its strengths. He seemed more open to moving the date to the primary election date, however. Cabrera was unfamiliar with STV, and thus not willing to take a position on it.

Overall, I was pretty happy with what I heard. Cabrera says there is a new Cabrera because “I’m a different guy. Losing humbles you.” I can’t speak to that, and I haven’t enjoyed his (no doubt poll-tested) focus on the supposed, but in my view non-existent, crime issue. What I do think is that one of the major things I was uncertain about two years ago – the absence of the vision thing – is no longer an issue. Fixing stuff isn’t maybe as exciting a platform as the crime issue that Cabrera, like many of the candidates, talks too much about in public. But it’s actually a good and necessary agenda. Plus, he’s not Cason — whom I simply cannot forgive for supporting the ex-city manager even after it became obvious he had misled the Commission.

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