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Miami Herld - July 27, 2003

New housing, retail space in works for Overtown after decades of broken promises

By Andres Viglucci and William Yardley

Historic Overtown, marked by enduring blight and littered with broken promises of rebirth, at long last may be poised for a sweeping makeover that backers promise will transform its run-down core into a multiracial, mixed-income bustle of condos, apartments, houses, retail shops and offices.

This time, just maybe, it is for real.

On the drawing boards are at least half a dozen projects comprising more than 1,600 dwellings, 8,000 square feet of retail space, and a 17-story tower with 425,000 square feet of offices. Building permits are being pulled and financing secured, and construction on some projects is under way.

Suddenly, developers and investors with clout and deep pockets -- including Miami's Codina Group and former basketball star Magic Johnson's Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund -- are considering investing in an area long seen as ''the hole in the doughnut'' of Miami's redevelopment boom. Overtown has remained conspicuously static while areas like Brickell, Edgewater and the Miami River are increasingly cluttered with construction cranes.

Just as significantly, say those pushing for change, the new Overtown would include a place for the people living there now.

Several projects are either under construction or in the process of acquiring permits:

- The Villages of St. Agnes, 80 single-family homes starting at about $90,000, is scheduled to begin construction in August on the vacant corner of Northwest Third Avenue and 19th Street after a long delay. The site once held a troubled public-housing project, which was razed.

- A 17-story office tower with retail stores, to be built at the Overtown Metrorail station, is scheduled to break ground by early next year and will be leased for county offices.

- A private Overtown developer, Salomon Yuken, has recently completed the renovation of 12 ''concrete monsters,'' the nickname for the Overtown apartment complexes first built in the 1950s. His flagship project among those renovations, New Arena Square, consists of two adjacent buildings at Northwest Third Avenue and 10th Street and includes retail shops -- so far unleased -- on the ground floor.

- Habitat for Humanity is building 34 single-family homes with a $1.4 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Habitat recently completed 11 other homes. Half of the houses are being reserved for current Overtown residents.

- The Black Archives History and Research Center, owner of the Lyric Theatre at 819 NW Second Ave., broke ground last month on a sophisticated addition that will serve as an entranceway to the venue, which once hosted Billie Holiday and Count Basie.

- The city's Community Redevelopment Agency is launching a $1 million project to replace sidewalks, curbs and gutters between Northwest Seventh and 11th streets and between Interstate 95 and Northwest First Avenue, parallel to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. There also are plans to extend the brick-paved Ninth Street Promenade from Miami Arena across the tracks.

What would be the most ambitious development remains only a proposal for now. A developer, Crosswinds Communities of Michigan, has proposed building what has been dubbed Downtown Overtown -- a 1,300- to 1,500-unit mixed-income residential development on mostly government-owned lots in central Overtown surrounding the Lyric Theatre.

The development, which would fill most of the large swath of vacant land at the neighborhood's historic heart, awaits resolution of a lawsuit over development rights stemming from the existing Poinciana Village condominiums. Private parties and city officials say they expect a settlement soon.


Major private development

has been lacking for century

If it all happens -- and ''ifs'' have always accompanied grand visions for the city's poorest neighborhood -- the projects would constitute the first major private development in Overtown since the early 20th century, when hundreds of tiny ''shotgun'' houses were constructed to shelter the black workforce helping to build Miami.

''This is not pie in the sky,'' said Phillip Bacon, executive director of the Overtown Civic Partnership and Design Center, a nonprofit arm of the Collins Center for Public Policy, which is trying to coordinate redevelopment in the area. ``If it's not there in five years, you can run us out of town.''

Bacon knows that promises of rebirth for Overtown have been made before. But he echoes civic leaders and developers who now say the neighborhood finally holds a crucial card it lacked before: hard market demand.

''I think it's ripe,'' said Armando Codina, chairman and chief executive officer of the Codina Group, which is talking with the Collins Center about working on mixed-income, mixed-use projects in Overtown.

Development on such a scale would represent a dramatic change for a section of the city born as Colored Town, a segregated district where whites kept blacks confined virtually from the city's inception in 1896.

A century later, much of southeast Overtown -- the neighborhood's historic core and the focus of most of the new projects -- is vacant land, either empty parking lots near the little-used Miami Arena or littered lots.

The neighborhood was once famed for its street life and night life, but after a century of devastation by segregation, highway construction, riots, crime, suburban flight and municipal neglect, the population in Overtown has dropped from about 40,000 in the 1960s to less than 10,000 today. In central Overtown, east of Interstate 95, 55 percent of the people live in poverty.

For more than two decades, promised change has failed to materialize. In the late 1980s, public officials said construction of Miami Arena would lead to broader redevelopment in the surrounding neighborhood, but progress largely halted after just two apartment towers and one condo project, Poinciana Village, were built.

Many residents remain skeptical about whether promised improvements will happen. Still others worry that development will simply push out poor residents.

Gregory Gay, an urban community planner for the city, said Overtown residents and those who want to preserve a place for them welcome change, but they also want respect.

''There are forces that want to come in and take out what's there and make this the next Brickell,'' Gay said. ``I don't think there's total resistance to that. It's just let's set aside a piece of history here and let's make it where some of the people who live here can continue to live here.''

Historian Dorothy Jenkins Fields, who heads the Black Archives, is especially concerned that new development incorporate and preserve historic structures, including the Lyric, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, St. John Baptist Church and more.

The trick, said R. McDuffie Nichols, director of a community revitalization program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, will be to ensure that the scale of new development -- in particular the proposed Downtown Overtown project -- does not overwhelm or obliterate the neighborhood's historic character.

''That neighborhood's going to change, but we think there's a way to balance that out,'' said Nichols, who was in Miami last week working with city officials on ways to use historic preservation to help revitalize Overtown and other city neighborhoods.

Fields said the city's recent endorsement of a plan to tear down Interstate 395, an elevated highway blamed for blighting and isolating Overtown, is a positive sign. But she worries that Overtown residents will not be given a chance to determine their own fate.

''The question is whether or not we're to be included,'' she said. ``That's what we're standing up for.''

Overtown activist Irby McKnight said he worries less about Overtown's remaining middle-class residents than he does about protecting senior citizens and unemployed younger residents. New development, he said, should be accompanied by job-training and placement programs.

''After 30 years of promises, it's about time something happened,'' McKnight said. ``But I have to remind people that this community didn't fall down overnight, and it won't come back up overnight.''


City leaders promise gains

for neglected area of Miami

City leaders vow that Overtown will benefit. Those involved say that city Commissioner Johnny Winton and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz have been particularly determined to create change.

''The mayor has said he wants to make sure no neighborhood gets left behind as the city goes through a renaissance, unlike the past where the growth has been concentrated in Brickell and other areas like it,'' said Otto Boudet-Murias, the mayor's senior advisor on economic development.

To encourage homeownership, much of the current development that is aimed at low-income families would use subsidies and pricing limits. Advocates say homeownership will help build the neighborhood's economic stability -- and bring in disposable income to support future retail businesses, something long lacking in Overtown.

Bacon said the Collins Center's goal is to reserve up to 30 percent of new residential development in Overtown as low-income housing.

''We believe that gentrification is going to happen with or without us,'' he said. ``The question is, can we intervene and help how it happens?''

Taken as a whole, Bacon hopes, the new projects will establish precedents for how developers can recast the area as a downtown neighborhood for middle-class residents who might work nearby, as well as serve the needs of the approximately 9,000 current, often poor, residents.

One way the group hopes to accomplish the goal is by buying property in Overtown that it can develop with for-profit partners. The South Florida Smart Growth Land Trust, a Collins Center branch, owns about 20 Overtown parcels, valued at about $2 million. Owning the land can give the partnership leverage to negotiate housing prices with developers that are affordable to lower-income residents.

One example is the proposed 1,500-unit development surrounding the Lyric Theatre, which the Collins Center is trying to put together. The development would have units for both rent and purchase, with 20 percent to 30 percent reserved as ''affordable,'' Bacon said.

''We have to define that,'' he said.

One formula could be to reserve space for residents who are at either 50 percent or 80 percent of the local median household income. In 2000, the median household income in the city of Miami was $23,483. For Miami-Dade County as a whole, it was $35,966.

The Collins Center received the broad-scale proposal for ''Downtown Overtown'' from Crosswinds Communities, which builds housing nationwide. Crosswinds' plan, in turn, has drawn the interest of Magic Johnson's Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, which invests in ''development and redevelopment of ethnically diverse urban areas,'' according to Bobby Turner, co-managing partner.

The Johnson group is exploring projects in several cities nationwide. Turner and others with Canyon-Johnson spent time recently in Miami, looking at projects throughout the county, including part of one day meeting with developers from Crosswinds.

''Bobby came back very excited about the opportunities, but we're in the early stages of it,'' said Canyon-Johnson's other managing partner, Ken Lombard. ``Here's what we walked away with: All the elements to support our investment are there.''