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Miami Herald - 1/21/02

By Andres Viglucci

Straddling the Miami River, in clear view of the office towers and high-rise condos of Brickell and downtown Miami, sit two of Miami-Dade County's oldest and poorest neighborhoods.

East Little Havana and Overtown are on the surface very different: One largely Hispanic, thickly populated, densely built; the other mostly black, with a dwindling population and acres of vacant land.

Yet they have in common deteriorated dwellings, few homeowners, and little in the way of new private investment, especially when it comes to housing.

And something else: Millions of public-redevelopment dollars pumped into nonprofit housing developers in Overtown and East Little Havana have produced at best isolated successes but have failed to halt neighborhood decline.

Now stepping into that daunting breach with a promise of new money and development smarts is a consortium of the nation's biggest foundations, banks and insurers, whose leaders believe they can help jump-start the stalled revitalization of Overtown and East Little Havana.

The six-month-old Living Cities initiative, which has announced plans to spend half a billion dollars on inner-city revitalization across the country in the next decade, has designated Miami as one of four ''pilot cities'' -- laboratories where its sponsors hope to develop novel ways to renew urban neighborhoods.

Particulars so far are few. Consortium members, including top officials of the Rockefeller Foundation and Bank of America, will meet in downtown Miami on Wednesday to work on the plan and visit Overtown and East Little Havana, the main focus of the local effort, which is spearheaded by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


In addition to augmenting the relatively small pool of money now dedicated to urban renewal in both neighborhoods, sponsors hope Living Cities can lead to better design and coordination of redevelopment projects to ensure a broader impact.

''They have not had the level of success they hoped for given the level of support that has been provided,'' said Reese Fayde, Living Cities' CEO. ``The question is, what can we do that would really make a difference?''

Fayde said Living Cities funders come with few preconceptions.

''This is very, very early in a planning process. This is something that's going to be going on for 10 years,'' she said.

A precursor to Living Cities, the National Community Development Initiative, made $250 million in loans and grants since 1991 to redevelopment projects nationwide, including more than $12 million to groups that built or renovated 850 dwellings in Miami-Dade County. The results were promising enough -- especially in cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul where nonprofit developers spurred broad neighborhood improvements -- that its backers decided last year to expand the project's funding and scope.

Renamed Living Cities, it comes to Miami at a time of disarray in the city's redevelopment efforts, which have been largely funneled through a dozen community development corporations, or CDCs, with a mixed record of success.

Notable successes include the East Little Havana CDC, which has built some 350 new affordable homes and apartments since 1990. In what could be the prototype for future redevelopment efforts, the group is nearing completion of its most ambitious project -- the $7 million Latin Quarter Specialty Center on Calle Ocho, consisting of 45 condominiums built atop street-level shops and a cultural center.


But some CDCs, hampered by inability to pull off the complex mix of grants, loans and other financing needed for such subsidized projects, have lagged behind. Last year, the city defunded six ineffective CDCs and cut support to others.

Some critics say part of the fault for the spotty record lies with poor oversight and mismanagement by the city's department of community development, which has just one remaining administrator following the departure of the director and several top aides.

But Barbara Gomez-Rodriguez, Miami's assistant director of community development, said CDCs must improve performance, broaden their vision and lure private partners.

That may be one direction Living Cities will take.


In Miami, Living Cities is to piggyback on work by the Knight Foundation, which since 2001 has been focusing much of its local effort on Overtown and East Little Havana.

In Overtown, for instance, Knight is funding the nonprofit Collins Center for Public Policy, which is working on projects to make affordable housing available to local residents as a way of preventing full-scale displacement, while at the same time drawing the more-affluent new homeowners needed to sustain a recovery.

''There have been efforts talked about and talked about and talked about in Overtown, and a lot of money put in,'' said Collins Center development director Bernice Butler.

``Why hasn't it been taking off? It's real clear to us that the missing element has been private players and funding. And Living Cities represents that.''


The Collins Center is putting together a loan fund of $50 million to $100 million, in which money from private investors would be loaned out to projects in Overtown and other inner-city neighborhoods, Butler said.

To help low-income families buy homes in those developments, it is studying the idea of starting individual accounts in which families can save for down payments, supplemented by money from donors.

And to ensure locals have a stake and a say in the shape of development, it has started a land trust, launched with $2 million from Knight, to buy land.

The goal is to entice developers while benefiting the wider community by creating a lively, pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhood of apartments, homes, shops and workplaces -- effectively a new, racially mixed version of Overtown in its prime.

''You have to do some engineering,'' Butler said. ``We do want to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage there.''