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1/5/04 - Miami Herald

North Miami banks future on massive redevelopment

North Miami's redevelopment district, one of the largest in the state, will incorporate upscale condos and affordable housing

By David Ovalle

As North Miami plans a massive redevelopment effort, city leaders are mindful of the recent troubles plaguing nearby Miami's similar effort in Overtown.

Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency, charged two decades ago with revitalizing Overtown, is under investigation by state and federal authorities, and critics say it has done little to improve the troubled neighborhood. To avoid repeating those mistakes, North Miami officials promise to scrutinize every dollar spent, keep meticulous records and encourage public oversight.

And if North Miami's CRA carries out its task right, city planners say, this working-class community of 60,000 people will get a face-lift that would make an aging movie star proud.

Upscale condos will overlook Biscayne Bay. Old homes on the city's poorer west side will be rebuilt. Clean, affordable housing will spring up. Rundown apartments on Northeast Sixth Avenue will be torn down.

It's too early to calculate a precise dollar amount, but planners say that within a decade North Miami's CRA could generate as much as $400 million, making it one of the largest such development efforts in state history.

''As far as CRAs go, none in the county will come close to the social engineering of this project,'' said North Miami City Attorney John Dellagloria, one of the agency's chief planners. ``If this works, everyone associated with it will be able to take pride in a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.''

For the past several months, city planners and consultants have worked furiously to launch the agency because they fear the state Legislature could change CRA laws in the spring by taking control of redevelopment agencies away from cities and giving it to counties.


The city last month approved the CRA's formation. Now, the agency needs approval from the Miami-Dade County Commission, which could happen by early March.

The details of CRAs are complicated, full of dense techno-speak like ''tax increment financing'' and ``eminent domain.''

But it boils down to this: When property values of downtrodden neighborhoods governed by the CRA rise, the agency keeps most of that money instead of sending it to the county or funding other city needs.

That means more money can be pumped back into those areas to redevelop homes and businesses.

No one disputes that North Miami could use a CRA.

In the past 13 years, the city's population has ballooned by about 10,000 people, many of them poorer Haitian immigrants. In that time, only 646 new housing units were built. The money-strapped city has to provide more services, but its tax base is stagnant.

In terms of size, North Miami's CRA would be one of the largest in the state -- it encompasses about 3,600 acres, roughly 60 percent of the city. By comparison, South Miami's CRA, which includes the Sunset Place mall, is only 189 acres.


''The stakes are so much greater in North Miami,'' Councilman Scott Galvin said. ``If you screw something up, you're not just doing it in a parking lot here or there, you're doing it in an entire city.''

And of all the land governed by North Miami's CRA, none is more important than the 193 acres just off Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 151st Street.


There lies the economic engine of North Miami's CRA. Last year, the city signed a much-ballyhooed deal with developer Michael Swerdlow to build at least 4,800 high-end condominiums, a hotel, a town center and parks at the former landfill site.

The tax revenue generated by Biscayne Landing will be used to revamp other neighborhoods in the CRA, which gets to keep the additional taxes generated when property values rise.

By floating bonds with that money, the CRA in about a decade could pump as much as $400 million into redevelopment, city officials say.

In essence, North Miami has banked its future on people snapping up bayside condos. Supporters say Biscayne Landing is what sets North Miami's CRA apart from the one in Miami, which has no similar economic catalyst.

''It's the Robin Hood approach,'' said Ricardo Noguera, the director of North Miami's community planning and development department. ``Luxury will be used to redevelop the more challenged parts of town.''


Still, the CRA's vast scope also means pitfalls abound. Miami's CRA has been criticized for mismanagement, questionable business practices and squandered resources.

North Miami city officials say their agency will aggressively watch every penny spent and keep administrative costs down.

They also want a CRA director who is ''beyond reproach,'' said Dellagloria, the city attorney.

As in Miami, the City Council will double as the CRA board of directors. But unlike Miami, North Miami's board will likely include residents.

And while many other CRAs focus on revamping business districts, North Miami's CRA will focus mostly on residential areas.

''The money is needed more for housing than commercial,'' said resident Jo An Moore, whose central North Miami condo has been ravaged by floods in recent years. ``I think we should concentrate on the residents.''

Despite the rosy predictions by supporters, the North Miami CRA has drawn criticism from the city's Haitian councilmen and mayor, who say that redevelopment will force poor people from their homes.

During the CRA's first meeting last month, Mayor Joe Celestin and councilmen Jean Monestime and Jacques Despinosse expressed concern about the agency's power of eminent domain, which allows government agencies to buy private property even when the owner does not want to sell.


They pointed to Overtown where hundreds of residents have been displaced under Miami's CRA.

The costly legal procedure, generally considered a last resort after negotiations fail, is critical to redevelopment efforts because individual property owners can hold up redesigns of an entire area by refusing to sell.

Nevertheless, city officials are confident that North Miami's CRA will succeed.

An attorney for the Florida Redevelopment Association, an independent association that represents state redevelopment agencies, says CRAs are worth the risks.

''CRAs are supposed to be entrepreneurial and that means you're going to make mistakes,'' said David Cardwell, an Orlando-based attorney for the Florida Redevelopment Association. ``Often, unfortunately, you only hear about the ones that make mistakes.''