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Miami Herald - November 11, 2001
One-time jewel seeking another chance
BY Fawad M. Siddiqui
An aging shopping center in the western fringes of Liberty City has become the focus
of an urban renewal project that seeks to transform the cluster of 60 shops and
service agencies and the area that surrounds it.
Three nonprofit groups began working two years ago to turn the Northside Shopping
Center at Northwest 27th Avenue and 79th Street into an urban renaissance showpiece.
``It's a tremendous economic resource that isn't being utilized,'' said Henry Crespo,
who heads the 79th Street Corridor Initiative.
The Urban League of Greater Miami, Miami-Dade Neighborhood Housing Services and
the Dade Employment and Economic Development Corporation formed the Initiative in
1999 to tackle Northside, the closest example of a mall for a mostly black community
of about 100,000.
Recent immigration has led to a growing number of Hispanics, who make up about 25
percent of the area's population and also shop at the center, said Northside's long-time
manager Donald G. Stevenson.
``It is a dinosaur,'' said Stevenson, who came to Northside 26 years ago as a store
manager and became head of the entire complex five years later.
Stevenson has his own ideas about how to drag this dino out of the Jurassic era.
He envisages a slow evolution into a popular shopping destination with the help
of private investment.
Calling Northside the first ``biggie'' of South Florida shopping centers, Stevenson
said it was built in 1959 and had its glory years when the surrounding community
was mostly white. The main draw was a large Sears department store, which closed
in 1983 after the 1980 and 1982 riots in the Liberty City and Overtown areas.
Today, the old Sears building houses a lingerie shop and a flea market. But Northside
also boasts four national franchises: Walgreens, Foot Locker, Payless Shoe Source
and McDonald's. Other tenants include a Citibank branch, an office of the Miami-Dade
County Department of Children and Family Services, a health clinic, a jobs center
and a driver's license bureau.
``It's a 1959 Buick in the year 2001, but it rides comfortably and it's functional,''
That's not good enough for Crespo.
``I'm not trying to drive in the 21st Century in a '59 Buick,'' Crespo said. ``Why
does the urban community have to settle for less when today we have more modern
cars? When you look at Northside Shopping Center, on the outside its decent -- you've
got some good stores out there -- but then when you start looking inside, nobody's
The Initiative proposes buying property in the surrounding area, such as empty lots
and old trailer parks, or persuading developers to acquire them. The Initiative
will host charrettes with residents and business owners to help draw up a blueprint
for community redesign. Bad roads, lighting and sewage services add to Northside's
unattractiveness and should be addressed by Miami-Dade County, Crespo said.
The 79th Street Corridor, where the shopping center is located, is also the hub
of several important facilities, such as the Miami-Dade Police Department's Northside
station, Peoples Bank of Commerce and Scott Homes -- a county housing project that
is undergoing its own overhaul.
``It takes a series of major empowerment projects to go on to begin to transform
a community and it requires the integration of all those pieces,'' said T. Willard
Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami. ``That's how we fit
in. With our Initiative, we are looking at the entire picture for the entire corridor,
instead of just focusing on one project.''
Each Initiative member group has its own expertise in community work, Crespo said.
The Urban League owns hundreds of affordable urban housing units and operates an
array of services. DEEDCO has a history of economic development. Neighborhood Housing
Services handles mostly mortgages.
The Initiative's main role will be to provide guidance, not funding or specific
details, Crespo said. Funding is expected to come from outside sources.
But the Initiative isn't standing still. In 1999, the group arranged for an architecture
class at the University of Miami to design a new Northside Shopping Center. Crespo
said that was a preliminary effort and the sprawling, bright pastel-hued complex
the students designed was just one example of the direction that could be taken.
The design can be viewed on the Initiative's website www.floridacdc.org/79th/.
Also, boosted by more than $500,000 in grants from such groups as the MacArthur
and Surdna foundations, the Initiative commissioned Florida International University
to conduct economic studies of the area that have been going on over the past three
The Initiative also hired architect and engineer Clyde Judson as technical advisor.
With his help, the group is looking at design firms that can draw up new conceptual
designs for the area. One design will be selected next week, Crespo said.
``We're in the stage where there isn't a lot of work being done because it's all
in the planning stages and there's not a whole lot to show for it yet,'' said Arden
Shank, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services.
When the plans are finalized, the Initiative will identify funding sources and lobby
for money, Crespo said. The first stage in the planning process, which includes
the almost completed FIU economic studies and choosing a design firm, will be finished
by February. The first round of charrettes is tentatively scheduled for the week
of Dec. 17. The planning process and the charrettes are expected to continue for
about three years. Crespo expects the whole area will be transformed within five
Perhaps the flashiest of the Initiative's ideas is Crespo's vision for the Amtrak
station at Northwest 37th Avenue and 83rd Street, four blocks north of the shopping
center. He anticipates the station expanding at its current site or relocating so
the trains can run on a set of unused tracks on 79th Street, creating a closer link
among the Amtrak station, the 79th Street Metrorail station and the shopping center
to serve an ``entertainment destination area.''
Crespo envisions the emergence of a new community hot spot along the lines of Main
Street in Miami Lakes, Cocowalk in Coconut Grove and Sunset Place in South Miami.
In September, the Initiative began pushing for improvements in the area around the
shopping center. In response, Precision Trading plans a new industrial park at 79th
Street and 36th Avenue which will break ground in June. Peoples Bank will improve
its building facade and Florida Power & Light will build a new substation, Crespo
``We help by creating conversation,'' Crespo said. ``For example, we were getting
reports of blackouts in the area, so we went to FPL.''
But Northside's Stevenson remains adamant that any significant change will require
private capital and, also, that the community must change before major improvements
can be expected.
Stevenson cites the 163rd Street Mall in North Miami Beach as an example. There,
he said, developers invested millions of dollars to make the mall an upscale shopping
experience -- at a time when the community was going in the other direction -- and
``You don't build a big Taj Mahal that the people can't support,'' Stevenson said.
Stevenson's pessimism is based, in part, on dealings he has had with the Urban League.
The league has been in talks with him for the past decade over buying the shopping
center but has come up short on funds each time, he said.
Fair confirmed talks had been taking place, most recently in 1997. He said the league
could not meet the $12 million price set for Northside by the owners, Tashi Valley
``Right now, the Initiative does not have the capital to buy that property,'' Crespo
agreed. ``But that does not mean it cannot facilitate the process where someone
will come in and buy that property. When we've done our study, that'll shape how
we approach the deal.''
Stevenson remains unconvinced.
``Private money built Hialeah,'' he said, referring to the commercial strips on
West 49th Street in Hialeah. ``Whose money was it? Walgreens, Home Depot. When these
people come into your community and you allow them to spend money to build stores
there, you know what that does? It puts taxes in your coffers and it gets your children
As the debate continues on the future of Northside, talk of change is greeted with
``The people don't appreciate anything that they have in the area,'' said Tina McGee,
an assistant manager at Payless Shoe Source. ``So, I don't feel like big corporations
from the outside are going to make a real change in the area, because the people
won't be receptive.''
Miami Northwestern High School student Tanica Hall, who has worked at the Foot Locker
for four months, is more optimistic -- up to a point. Changes, she said, would ``make
the place look nicer.'' But she is afraid change may bring unwelcome side effects.
``The people who work in these places put the spice to this place,'' Hall said.
``These people are our friends. Without them this place wouldn't be the same. This
is one of the few places where black people can get together.'