City approves changes to UMCAD plan

By a 5-0 vote, the Coral Gables City Commission Tuesday voted to approve all of the University of Miami’s 22 amendments to its master plan for the expansion and creation of university facilities.

Eric Reil, a member of the Planning and Zoning Board, presented the proposed amendments to the University of Miami Campus Area Development (UMCAD) to a packed house, which included President Donna E. Shalala, other university officials and a handful of students.

Shalala, in an interview with The Miami Hurricane on Feb. 1, described the situation at that time as “dicey, very dicey.” She was excited for the future of the university, but said “we just have some mountains to climb, called Coral Gables.”

She spoke to The Hurricane via email Wednesday.

“This vote was the first step in clearing an almost three-year backlog of buildings we need to be a world-class university,” she said. “There is a long way to go. We are hopeful, but will not be satisfied until we see the buildings going up.”

The commissioners and Mayor Don Slesnick listened closely as Reil detailed the plan point by point.

Though all five commissioners voted in favor of the amendments, this is not the end of the process. Reil said UM must conduct a new regional and local traffic impact study, something the university is required to do whenever it wishes to build more than 200,000 square feet. The university will pay all of the costs associated with design, permitting, and construction of recommendations made by the study, which should take approximately four to six weeks to complete, according to Reil.

The amendments approved today include additions to Richter Library, the demolition of the Rathskeller to make way for the construction of a Student Activities Center-also part of the amendments, a new alumni building and new residential colleges.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Board unanimously rejected the university’s 25 proposed amendments at a Jan. 10 meeting, a step made necessary because more than twenty percent of the overall UMCAD was being altered.

After this move, Sergio Garcia, UM’s vice president for real estate and facilities, told the Coral Gables Gazette in January how the university planned to proceed.

“We are looking at every option,” he said regarding UM’s consideration of seceding from Coral Gables. “Instead of [the] due process we are entitled to, the city’s administration has repeatedly thwarted our legitimate projects with frustrating delaying tactics and demands for payoffs.”

University officials and commissioners shook hands after the vote Tuesday, but Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick talked to The Hurricane about the aftermath of the January vote.

“Well, I think at the beginning, there was a good deal of anger on this side [Coral Gables] about some of the things that were said,” he said, “and it appeared to us that, when you get over the emotional anger, there was an intention to conduct a war over the issue. We set forth to find a way out of the maze that would be productive for all sides and put aside our hurt feelings.”

Some of the university’s neighbors were not entirely pleased with the approval of the amendments and expressed skepticism with respect to the necessity for these facilities.

Joanne Schaffer, director of the UM Neighbors Homeowners Association, expressed her skepticism at the sudden availability of land for UM housing projects in a letter to the commission.

“We were told that all areas on campus were already allotted for other uses and now suddenly there are three new housing project proposals,” she said in the letter. “UM built University Village based on a set of lies.”

George Volsky, a neighbor and former New York Times correspondent, said he is upset that the university is only seeking to improve itself and not using its enormous fundraising gains to benefit the community.

“If the university is going to do something, it ought to be done for the benefit of the citizens,” he said.

Nitin Aggarwal, the student representative to the UM Board of Trustees, believes the projects are more than necessary.

“A lot more students are living on campus and we don’t have space,” he said. “We are very behind.”

Gilbert Arias, an assistant vice president for Student Affairs, said that UM expects to fundraise separately for each project with individual schools contributing funds to their respective initiatives. He also said these funds will be augmented with the funds provided for the entire UMCAD by the Momentum fundraising campaign.

Arias said the approval of the UMCAD now allows the university to move forward with the design permit process, where they will return to City Hall to gain approval on a project-by-project basis. Any new concerns would be related to aesthetics and building codes.

Sarah Artecona, assistant vice president for media and community relations, said the university will first start to work on the Wellness Center expansions, the new student center and the new alumni center.

With respect to the Wellness Center expansions, Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for Student Affairs announced at Wednesday’s Senate meeting that the university hired an architect and that they looking for a donor to fund the $7 million project.

Greg Linch contributed to this report.

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