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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,'' Stevenson said.

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 there.''

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

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 months.

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 years.

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 said.

``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 they failed.

``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 Inc.

``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 hired.''

As the debate continues on the future of Northside, talk of change is greeted with mixed feelings.

``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.'